The consequences of ‘gagging’ Trump

GUEST POST: Mario Creatura is Head of Strategic and Digital Communications at Virgin Money. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Late on Wednesday evening Facebook chose to ban President Trump from their platform and Instagram indefinitely, but at least for the duration of his presidency.

Twitter temporarily froze his account, but then took the more drastic decision of banning him permanently on Friday. Given his words directly led to the violence on Capitol Hill, who could blame them for taking this potentially preventative action?

While social media companies have for some time now been encouraged to remove accounts perceived to be harmful or criminal, this is nevertheless a watershed moment for the core definition of these organisations – one that will shape the role they and regulators play in curating our digital world.

This could not be more important. It all centres round the ongoing debate about whether social media companies are ‘publishers’ (with an editorial policy akin to a traditional newspaper) or ‘platforms’ (where they act as the passive host through which any and all content can be shared).

For years now they have maintained the façade that they are platforms – in short that they are not to blame for much of the biased, twisted material that’s shared through their tool. But if they are making choices about who to ban, what content is permissible, and what action is justified in the policing of their sites then their argument quickly deteriorates to the point of ridiculousness.

This is not a semantic, academic debate for media lawyers. In late November last year, Prince Harry sued the publishers of The Mail on Sunday over a story claiming that he has fallen out of touch with the Royal Marines. If Facebook is a platform, then they are broadly protected from similar lawsuits. If they are acknowledged to be a publisher then this totally changes the ballgame and leaves them open to such libel actions as well and could remove them from the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The banning of President Trump from social platforms will likely have a huge impact on clarifying this debate. Social media companies are undeniably taking an editorial stance, one that many will agree with in this instance. But once that premise is accepted, how can we object to future judgements that we are less keen on?

Too little, too late?

In this very specific situation, what will the impact of Facebook and Twitter’s decision be on Trump’s advocates?

His removal from these platforms takes away his primary means of communicating to some of his increasingly aggressive base of supporters. One possibility is that over time this ban will hurt him and his populist philosophy by making him seem unconnected and ineffective. They could think: ‘If Twitter can silence the great Trump, is he really the all powerful leader we think he is?’

The alternative, far more dangerous path is that it will yet further embolden his fanatics. A scenario that paints the elite, wealthy techno giants as being in hock to the out-of-touch Democrats; claiming they are so terrified by Trump speaking the truth that the will do anything to silence him. ‘They stole the election, now they’re trying to gag him!’ In this version of events, where do these people go? Do they continue to spout their views on mainstream channels, without an obvious leader to corral them?

The editorial decisions made by social media companies could quite feasibly create a digital Hydra – they can try to cut off the head, but many will grow in its place, spawning yet more leaders of hyper-partisan, totally populist campaigners to accompany his already large following of loyal lieutenants.

After all, it’s simply too late to now be punishing Trump by removing his bully pulpit. He’s on his way out and frankly the damage has been done. And he’s not done it alone, dozens of his Senators, Congressmen, political staffers and loyal media outlets have stoked the rhetoric that led to the violence in DC. It has already spread too far for it to be halted by simply banning Trump.

What’s next?

While Trump’s gagging on social channels sends a clear signal that tech giants are taking their curating role seriously, it needs to be more than a Democrat-wooing PR-exercise. Personal responsibility needs to be taken urgently among our lawmakers and the press to self-regulate the content that they all individually publish, whether or not digital companies are finally identified as publishers. We simply cannot wait yet more years for this debate to play out or for social media companies to regulate free expression retrospectively.

For one: it will cause resentment of the social channels from the perceived oppressed side of the deal. If Trump is censored by Twitter, then Trump supporters will turn their guns on to Twitter.

For another: social media companies are significantly more adept at adapting to the shifting needs of the digital sphere. There is already fear that any attempt by legislators to regulate social media will be out-dated and irrelevant by the time the lengthy legislative process is complete.

Whose job is it to police the digital police if they exist beyond traditional borders with little knowledgeable accountability?

The decision to ban Trump has already unleashed waves of criticism – some arguing that it’s an attack on free speech, others that it’s a more serious assault on democratic institutions. That pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of calls for an entirely reasonable principle: fairness. Many are calling for Twitter to ban Ayatollah Khamenei for the same reasons as Trump – will social media companies be able to operate their content moderation policies consistently?

It took Twitter three days to remove a post from a Chinese Embassy trying to spin justifications for their Uyghur genocide – do they have the capacity to apply them fairly? The pressure on them to be consistent, in speed and judgement, will grow and grow exponentially.

Trump may have led the creation of the ripe environment for sedition, but many agents played their part in advancing it. Obfuscating social media companies, slow legislators, and partisan communicators all must share in the blame for last Wednesday’s violence.

For that accountability to happen, influencers need to get to grips with their responsibility to consider the consequences of their personal content and for us all to understand the true role of the social media giants.

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This piece was written for Influence.

Populism isn’t dead — it’s alive and well

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. He is a former National Executive Officer of Conservative Future (Young Conservatives)

This week, President Trump ended former President Obama’s 12-year run as the ‘most admired man in America’ (according to the annual Gallup survey). The recognition — which I’m confident was joyfully received in Mar-a-Lago — is hardly a surprise, given that sitting US Presidents have been awarded the title by the pollster 60 out of 74 years. With that said, Trump also won the most votes of any sitting President in history in 2020 (74m to 66m for Obama back in 2012), as well as more counties than his opponent, so several statistics would support it.

However, what good is that when the President lost the Electoral College? Judging by the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, the show is over for Trumpism. But is it really? Here, I share some facts and thoughts about what is next for populism, both across the pond and closer to home.

The reality is — that despite one of the lowest-energy national campaigns to date — Joe Biden somehow achieved 306 Electoral College votes to President Trump’s 232 and on January 20, 2021, will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

Despite all the lawsuits, re-counts and endless chatter on social media, no concrete evidence of fraud came to light to overturn the outcome. In addition, Biden will have a small majority in the House, with 222 Democrats to 210 Republican Congressmen and women. The picture is less clear in the upper chamber. Right now, the Republicans have 50 Senators to 48 Democrats — therefore, the result of the run-off Georgia elections next week carries tremendous weight on both sides of the divide.

If the GOP and indeed President Trump want to protect his legacy and be in with a chance of holding the Senate, as well as winning the 2022 mid-terms and 2024 Presidential race — and most Republican voters do not want the ‘America First’ policy to be put back in the bottle — they must look forward, and fast. Both components — the campaign and the party — should work together and sing from the same hymn sheet, e.g. on the $2,000 stimulus check, to help re-elect Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Tuesday, January 5.

That means encouraging early voter turnout, as Donald Trump Jr. and others are doing, as well as sharing a platform, like the rally scheduled in Atlanta on the preceding day. It’s unclear whether this will be too late to have an impact. The same could be said of another, but broader, rally planned for Washington, DC, on the following day, January 6.

Whatever the outcome is, President Trump acts as a reminder that a significant portion of Americans do not share the liberal elite’s woke outlook and that populism is not dead.

In the wake of Brexit and a trade deal between the UK and EU, populism may even rise — although the process itself was frustrating, it won’t stop other European parties from campaigning for their countries to follow suit. Who knows — Flanders, Italy and others could do things differently in 2021 by electing populist governments that are committed to putting their countries and their people first. Who could blame them?

I hope President Trump’s pragmatic approach to US foreign policy — which, on balance, has proven far less warmongering and therefore less destructive than that of Clinton, Bush or indeed Obama — will continue under the new President. Unfortunately, though, I doubt it. The same pessimism goes for US-UK relations. Biden seems in no mood to prioritise a new trade deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

President-Elect Biden is almost certainly not going to wage war against the social justice warriors who voted for him, including those on the campus battlefield, where — as Charlie Kirk sums it up perfectly — “Free speech, intellectually rigorous debate, and the simple concepts of tolerance and fairness are routinely being corrupted and weaponised to promote radical leftist ideologies, enforce groupthink, and marginalise or eliminate any student, professor, and dean who gets in their way.”

At least in England, there is a growing number of MPs who are talking sense on censorship and conservatism, and there are activists who are ready to get involved.

I don’t believe we’ve seen the finale of Trumpism, or indeed populism itself. In fact, I believe they are likely to grow and will be projected by a generation of patriots, including Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz. Watch this space, folks.

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This piece was written for Turning Point UK, a student movement for free markets, limited government, personal responsibility and duty to others. Its sister is Turning Point USA. It was republised by Politicalite (‘Trumpism and Populism Aren’t Dead — They’re Alive and Well’ — January 2, 2021).

Extinction Rebellion’s virtue-signalling hypocrisy undermines climate crisis cause

GUEST POST: Stephen Lynch is a PR and Public Affairs Consultant, and former Press Adviser to The Conservative Party. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Extinction Rebellion are now censoring the press in their pursuit of halting mass extinction. It’s also a peculiar time to stretch the precious resources of the emergency services, and deprive family newsagents of income during the prolonged menace of Covid-19. 

Former Labour ministers reckon that XR’s latest stunt comes out of the fascistic authoritarian regime playbook. Days after attacking the free press and its freedom to publish, the group’s latest email has the chutzpah to praise the “freedom to speak truth to power” as a hallmark of a “healthy democracy”.

Ironically, XR prevented readers of The Sun newspaper this weekend from hearing Sir David Attenborough’s thoughts about how to tackle the climate crisis. The mission of tackling the climate crisis needs those who can build alliances, not alienate them.

XR risks being irrevocably labelled as a left-wing, anarchist group of affluent activists more concerned with parading their morality on social media than effectively dealing with the complexity of the climate crisis. They face being officially classified as an organised crime organisation, with all the invasive surveillance that entails. Their blockades of printworks risk damaging the very cause the group is supposed to be supporting.

XR’s website says their struggle is not about left or right, yet they targeted every right-of-centre newspaper in their salvo against the “crooked billionaire press”. Their literature claims that XR avoids “blaming and shaming” any one individual, yet their recent emails attack Rupert Murdoch and “corrupt media moguls and dodgy politicians.”

XR misleadingly pushes the illogical notion to their followers that the UK government is sanguine about, or otherwise deliberately accelerating climate change. 

Prior to Covid-19 and after leaving the EU, achieving net zero became one of the government’s two overarching priorities, along with “levelling up” the nations and regions. Last year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law ending its contribution to global warming by 2050; the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 country; it is the world’s biggest producer of offshore wind energy; it has cut emissions by 42 per cent since 1990.

There is always more to do, and few in Whitehall or in industry are complacent about sustainability.

Next November, 30,000 delegates, including heads of state and climate experts, will gather in Glasgow to agree coordinated international action for tackling the climate crisis at COP26. 

It will be the first time that the UK has taken on the presidency of this UN conference, and our government will want to lead the gathering with a powerful pledge and a message to other countries that it is time to step up.

The international community also hopes we will lead with a strong commitment on our own emissions so we will have credibility in encouraging other countries to follow suit.

The Met Office’s State of the Climate report this summer illustrates that over the last decade, summers and winters have been around 12 per cent wetter. Four new high-temperature records were registered in 2019, including the highest UK temperature.

Despite the UK’s achievements, there is a compelling case for action, especially as global carbon emissions have more than doubled since 1971. The question is how best can we make a genuine difference on this planet?  

China is responsible for more than one-quarter of all global carbon emissions, and along with the United States, India, Russia and Japan, the biggest polluters account for over half of all emissions.

This seems like a good place to start if you are serious about creating change.

The delayed COP26 also gives XR the opportunity to potentially influence a new administration in Washington, and one that would be more committed to the Paris Agreement at that.

Joe Biden has pledged to integrate climate change fully into US policy on trade and foreign affairs. A stronger believer in alliances, if he is elected president, he could also opt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the UK to form the world’s greatest trading bloc, where the environment is an integral aspect, not an optional add-on.

XR should form partnerships with NGOs in these highest-emitting countries and seek to influence in a more convincing, mature, and legal way.

The global spotlight on Glasgow will help focus delegates’ attention, laser-like, on the task at hand.  

XR’s first demand is for the media and politicians to “tell the truth” about the global ecological emergency. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling books on persuasion do not recommend starting a negotiation by publicly questioning the other side’s honesty and integrity.  

XR can engage more effectively and professionally with the proceedings – coffees, meeting agendas and informed discussion rather than handcuffs, tantrums and disruption motivated by self-appointed moral superiority. Lobbying is making the right argument, to the right person, at the right time. XR can make a strategic shift away from civil disobedience and towards civil engagement and debate in Glasgow, Scotland’s Dear Green Place, next year.

Protest can put critical issues on the agenda, but you need lawmakers and policies to make the change. We have the means to act. The UK is in prime position to coordinate, cajole and enable the substantial political will required. We can begin to finally turn the tide against decades of complacency, for which there may be an awfully high cost.

XR can be a help, not a hindrance in a long campaign that will ultimately be won with advanced diplomacy, persuasion and technology – not by casting aspersions on the intelligence of the people whose support you need, or on the motives of the people who will legislate the change.

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This piece was written for The Independent.

Censorship cannot become the new normal

Joy Morrissey

GUEST POST: Joy Morrissey is the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and Patron of Conservatives in Communications. Follow on Twitter

At a time when we are all still struggling to come to terms with Coronavirus, I would like to re-emphasise the vitally important principle of free speech. Many may not believe that this should be a priority right now, when we are faced with the daunting task of fighting this virus and supporting our ailing economy. But without the historic principle of free speech, which allows for the free flow and exchange of innovative ideas, we would not have been able to make the great scientific and policy making strides that are helping people around the world to tackle this pandemic.

Yet, worryingly, across the Western world, evidence is mounting that people, particularly the young, seem less and less appreciative of the value of free speech. This has become increasingly apparent as more people try to censor the opinions of those with whom they disagree rather than challenging them with reasoned arguments.

This has unfortunately intensified to the extent that individuals themselves are now being censored, no-platformed or “cancelled” in a misguided attempt, almost religiously, to defend the idea that certain beliefs are sacrosanct and cannot therefore be challenged or criticised.

As a result, we now live in a culture where not a day goes by without an individual or public figure having to clarify, apologise or resign for having expressed an opinion, or said a word out of place, or deviated from the approved line on a given subject.

We cannot perhaps expect people from all corners of society to appreciate just why free speech matters so much and how it influences, shapes, and improves their everyday lives.

Yet the vital importance of free speech must be well understood by academic institutions which only exist, and continue to thrive, because of our liberal freedoms.

How can universities seriously expect to maintain their status as bastions of thought, knowledge and innovation, when they continually allow their student bodies to censor research or academic speakers who contradict their world view? Surely they realise how illogical their wilful inaction is?

Already there are real concerns that the failure of institutions to stand up for liberal values could be stifling and suppressing research, discussion and innovation by academics in other areas.

A report from Policy Exchange has suggested that right-leaning, or Brexit-supporting academic staff at universities feel uncomfortable expressing their views, because doing so may trigger a hostile response which could hamper their research and their careers.

This extends to other contentious issues such as those surrounding trans rights. In fact, the report points out that many academics feel as though they must self-censor their work prior to publication. This undermines the very existence of universities as open and thought-provoking environments where old ideas can be challenged and new ideas created.

This is also bad news for the wider public, as potentially game-changing concepts could be stifled, while impractical ideas and solutions get bulldozed through unchallenged.

If universities are more concerned about hurting people’s feelings than the quality and breadth of their academic research then I believe we have a serious and endemic crisis right at the heart of our premier educational institutions.

This is already having consequences across society with schools, public bodies and workplaces following universities’ example and failing to foster an environment which embraces open discussion and debate.

Across our society we need to do more to distinguish between abusive speech inciting violence, and free speech which involves the expression of new ideas and the challenging of old ones. There should be unanimous agreement about the vital importance of the latter.

Only through free and open debate have projects from both Conservatives and Labour, which were previously thought of as unthinkable or unworkable, eventually became universally accepted hallmarks of our country, such as the NHS or the principle of privatisation.

No one – and no idea – is so perfect or unassailable as to be beyond criticism. If you have strongly held beliefs, then you should be prepared to defend them through reasoned and measured debate, exposing weak criticisms for what they are and highlighting how much stronger your own arguments are.

This means of course that we may all be exposed to views and opinions that we find unpalatable or even preposterous. But the minute we start chipping away at the free expression of others, we begin to erode the very essence of what makes us a democracy.

That is something which as a party we must not allow to happen. Universities should wake up and smell the coffee and act now to uphold the very principle of free speech on which they were founded.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.

Boris set to write our next chapter

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector. 

Before this leadership election got underway, I wrote that the next leader must be able to tell the Tory story – of aspiration and opportunity – and identified Boris Johnson as the person best-positioned to do that.

Having previously supported David Cameron and then Theresa May, I like to think I back winners – at least, in terms of those who reach the top. That said, while the former will be remembered for rescuing the economy – while giving people the power to marry who they love and an overdue say on Europe – the latter, much to my disappointment, has no real legacy. Johnson should avoid repeating that mistake.

His final column for the Daily Telegraph, ‘Britain must fire-up its sense of mission’, was jam-packed with the kind of Merry England (or Merry UK) optimism that we experienced during the Cricket World Cup and that the whole country needs right now: “They went to the Moon 50 years ago. Surely today we can solve the logistical issues of the Irish border”. Quite right.

You’ve guessed it, I’m chuffed that Conservative MPs, media and members supported Johnson’s bid to become our Prime Minister. I’m looking forward to May handing him the keys to Number Ten and him batting for us after three, long years of doom and gloom. Sure, optimism isn’t everything – but it can set the tone. A detailed vision must be articulated and executed by a sound team.

Whichever side you were on before the referendum (or are on now), in the short term, we need to redefine our purpose, move forward with our global partners, unite the UK – and defeat Corbynism.

Mid-term, we should invest further in our national security and technology, improving education and life chances and encouraging greater participation in culture and sport, as well as boosting home ownership. Plus the odd tax cut here and there would be well-advised.

However, we must not put off having debates – for fear of offending – about controlling immigration and legalising drugs, and about funding for health and social care, as well as protecting the environment, for these issues matter and will matter even more in the future.

We should also avoid the temptation to ban political expression, alternative media and sugary foods, and celebrate instead free speech, press freedom and the right to choose.

Again, I look forward to Johnson peddling optimism and hope that people get behind him, because, ultimately, he will write our next chapter – and if we jump onboard and provide support, much more can be achieved by us all working together.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com (July 24, 2019) and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Boris set to write Britain’s next chapter’ – July 24, 2019) and The Commentator (‘Boris brings the sunshine’ – July 28, 2019).