In the waning days of his presidency, some of Donald Trump’s favorite megaphones have been taken away from him.
Following the MAGA mob’s desecration of the Capitol on Jan. 6, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, Snap, Discord, and Twitch all announced policies that either banned or severely restricted President Trump’s use of their platforms. Facebook, the largest social network and traditionally one of the most reticent to restrict its users, banned Trump’s accounts for “at least” the remainder his presidency. After a brief 12 hour ban on the 6th, two days later Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s personal account. @realDonaldTrump, the digital avatar that was such a big part of Trump’s rise, with its angry, all-caps pronouncements, bald-faced lies, and racist dog whistles, is now completely blank.
For many Trump foes, these bans were a very long time coming. Since before he entered politics, back when he was promoting “birther” conspiracy theories about former President Obama, Trump used social media to spread misinformation and inflame racist hostility. More recently, his COVID denialism and repeated lies about election fraud on Twitter have been linked to actual violence, like the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and death threats against the Georgia Secretary of State.
But in the wake of the events in Washington, D.C., something shifted. A new, wider chorus of voices called on social media companies to censure Trump. After largely resisting such calls for years, the Silicon Valley giants are now relenting, not only banning Trump’s accounts, but refusing to host alternative social media platforms like Parler where they say Trump supporters are planning future insurrections. However, with the presidency and both houses of Congress now in the hands of Democrats, these moves might be as much about political expediency as protecting democracy.
“This is clearly an unprecedented move in terms of media history, an organ of public discourse being denied a sitting president” says Ian Davis, a professor of Media Studies at UC Berkeley who researches the intersection of media and politics. “But at the same time, there is no precedent for a sitting president to challenge the separation of powers through a threat of mob violence. So, you know, unprecedented measures for unprecedented times.”
For days leading up to the Washington, D.C., protest that led to the storming of the Capitol, President Trump was egging on his supporters on social media. In addition to his typical ravings about having won the election, which Twitter was labeling with misinformation notices, Trump promised his supporters the Jan. 6 gathering would be “wild.” At the event itself, on the National Mall, Trump instructed his supporters to march down to the Capitol, telling them “you’ll never take back your country with weakness.” Then, once the mob infiltrated the building, Trump resisted calls by his aids to dispatch the National Guard. After a long period of silence, he eventually released a video where he couched a gentle request for the protestors to return home in yet another false screed about the election being stolen. He also told the Confederate-flag waving rioters that he loved them, and that they are “very special.”
Following the events at the Capitol, the NAACP, the Anti Defamation League, and Michelle Obama were among the prominent voices to call for President Trump to be banned from social media. High-profile tech journalists Casey Newton and Ben Thompson, who had both previously argued against Trump’s accounts being banned, changed their tune, joining writers like Kara Swisher who had long been in favor of Twitter removing his account.
For Newton, Trump crossed a line by attempting to subvert the outcome of the election with violence. “By inciting the violent occupation of the U.S. Capitol, Trump has given up any legitimate claim to power. In 14 days, barring catastrophe, he will be out of office. The only question is how much damage he will do in the meantime — and we know, based on long experience, that his Twitter and Facebook accounts will be among his primary weapons.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg framed his thinking around Trump’s temporary ban in a similar manner: “Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government. We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
Twitter, meanwhile, justified its lifetime suspension of Trump’s account by claiming that his two tweets following his initial 12-hour suspension violated its policy banning the glorification of violence. Buried in the company’s rather semantic close-read of the president’s tweets was the phrase: “Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the U.S. Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.”
Legally, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest have every right to ban Trump’s accounts. The first amendment and free speech law are about the government restricting speech. As private companies, the tech giants can ban anyone they please. “When you hear a lot of conservative commentators talking about free speech being over for conservatives because of the actions of Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, they’re not applying the law in an accurate way,” Davis says.
But for platforms that aspire to be neutral public squares, the Trump bans highlight larger issues with their own internal policies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes civil liberties on the internet, supports social media companies’ rights to ban Trump’s accounts. However, in their statement on the matter, the EFF reiterated its calls for content moderation decisions to be guided by a “human rights framework,” that is transparent, consistently applied, and allows for an appeals process.
David Greene, EFF’s Civil Liberties director, highlighted some specific examples of the inconsistencies in these policies. “There’s been a lot of research done about how when a sex worker posts a comment it gets taken down or shadow banned, and the exact same thing by someone else doesn’t,” Greene says.
The Trump bans also throw Facebook and Twitter’s lack of action in other countries into stark relief. “I think from where we sit in this country, we have to understand that it’s not the first time they’ve had to make a decision about an abusive head of state,” Greene says. “There have been other situations where other heads of state around the world have used the sites for really awful purposes, and they did not respond in this way.” Examples include hate speech against Muslims by the government of Narendra Modi in India, and the incitement of genocide of the Rohingya community by military leaders in Myanmar.
Greene thinks upcoming elections in other countries could demonstrate whether these companies are going to make lasting, consistent policy changes. In Uganda, where elections are coming up this week, “because of income inequality and class and caste systems, social media services play a really crucial role in election information,” Greene says. “So it will be really interesting to see how they apply the lessons they learned in the U.S. election.”
Back in October of 2019, San Francisco’s own Sen. Kamala Harris called for Twitter to ban Trump in a bid to reinvigorate her flagging presidential campaign. At the time, when Harris implored her fellow Democratic candidates for president to join her crusade on the debate stage, all she got in response was crickets. Now that Twitter has belatedly followed-through on Vice President-elect Harris’ ask, there’s hardly a dissenting voice among prominent Democrats and liberals. Most opposition to the social media bans is coming from Republicans and conservatives who feel their own expression, and their political movement, is under threat — all the more so now that the Apple and Google app stores, as well as Amazon Web Services, have stopped hosting conservative Twitter copycats like Parler for failing to remove incitements to violence.
However, there are some who object to these bans on non-partisan, philosophical grounds, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Journalist Glenn Greenwald has argued that the effort to undermine Parler only increases Big Tech’s monopoly power by quashing a potential rival.
The Trump bans are taking place in a particular political and financial context. Big Tech companies are currently in the crosshairs of U.S. regulators for allegedly engaging in anti-competitive, monopolistic behavior. They’re also fighting to preserve Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from liability for things their users post while still allowing them to moderate content. Trump and fellow Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley have signalled a desire to revise the statute, which is integral to the business model of social media.
But, at least in the near term, Republicans are no longer a threat to Section 230. As of last week, with the certification of the presidential election and the results of the Georgia Senate runoff, Democrats officially took control of both houses of Congress and the White House.
Tech companies “don’t want Section 230 messed with by liberals or conservatives,” Davis says. “Well, liberals are in charge now… Trump’s on his way out, so he’s a political figure that they can marginalize.” At the same time, Davis says of Facebook and Twitter, “I don’t want to discount this idea that they themselves are at least somewhat concerned about the political happenings and that they do have some public spiritedness, that they recognize their social responsibility.”