(Bloomberg) — For four years during his presidency, Twitter allowed Donald Trump to amplify attacks on his rivals, spread conspiracies and provoke other nations. Two days after his rallying cries culminated in an actual violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol, the social media platform took his favorite megaphone away, banning his account permanently.
That may be too little, too late. The decision is unlikely to let Twitter off the hook after years of enabling the president, allowing a portion of America to be sucked into an angry alternate reality. The company is already facing criticism from Democrat politicians, who will take control of U.S. Congress and the presidency in less than two weeks. Those who study social media misinformation have long warned Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that the president’s words could lead to real-world violence.
“I’m not going to applaud the move now when it is politically the most obvious, easy and — let’s be frank — good business decision,” said Yaël Eisenstat, a former CIA intelligence officer who worked on Facebook election policy before quitting in frustration. “Inciting your followers to engage in insurrection is a high form of treason and allowing your platform to be used for that purpose makes you complicit.”
Trump, who had more than 88 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account, rarely went more than a few hours without tweeting during his presidency. The often incendiary posts tended to be inspired by his latest conversations, or by his reactions to daytime cable news. They would go on to be interpreted by his cabinet for policy priorities and messaging, and to inspire his fervent followers.
While Twitter was his primary platform, the messages would be repeated on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Twitter’s move now puts pressure on other leading social networks to also ban the president. Facebook, which is suspending Trump until at least Joe Biden’s inauguration, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Jessica González, co-chief executive officer of Free Press, a member of a coalition of civil rights and advocacy groups, praised Twitter for the move. Though she also said it was “a day late and a dollar short,” and said she hoped Facebook and Google, the parent of YouTube, would follow suit. “It’s time,” she said. “If it’s not clear now, it’ll never be clear to them.”
Before the ban, the social media companies faced public outcry whenever a Trump message seemed to cross a line. That public uproar was often followed by a deliberation about whether they would or should take action. Their policy teams analyzed the president’s word choice, escalated decisions to their top executives, and often wavered on the call. In May 2020, when the president posted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” during racial protests, Twitter hid the post for glorifying violence, while Facebook left it standing, sparking outrage among employees, who staged an internal protest.
Trump’s silencing on Twitter was a slow process. First, the company put warning labels on his tweets that supported Capitol rioters, then hid them, before suspending the account. It finally led to the latest action, determining that his tweets “were highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the U.S. Capitol.” Twitter noted that it saw Trump’s followers planning more attacks on government buildings on Jan. 17.
YouTube still allows the president to post, while Snap has also suspended him indefinitely. Facebook’s ban until post-inauguration also extends to Instagram, which it owns.
Parler, the new social network which has become a haven for Trump’s followers upset with the other sites’ content moderation policies, was kicked off the Google Play store. Apple threatened to remove it Saturday, if it doesn’t come up with stricter rules for its users. Trump doesn’t appear to have an official account on Parler.Now that Trump is banned on Twitter, the debate is likely to shift beyond individual posts and to the broader problem: how social media algorithms amplify anger and conspiracy theories. The companies are already facing a potential revision of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the law that provides legal protection around user-generated posts.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia called Twitter’s move “an overdue step” in a tweet but said the focus should be on “an entire ecosystem that allows misinformation and hate to spread and fester unchecked.” Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday’s “events will renew and focus the need for Congress to reform Big Tech’s privileges and obligations.” He said Sec. 230 reform would be a priority.
Among Republicans, the move is likely to rekindle concerns about tech power over public conversation. “Free speech no longer exists in America,” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, said in a tweet, echoing outrage by several right-wing figures who have long claimed that tech companies censor them. “It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few.” Courts have ruled in the past that Twitter has a First Amendment right to silence users if it chooses.
Waited Too Long
Laura Gomez, a former Twitter employee, said before the company suspended Trump that said she worried Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol could happen again if the president remained on the platforms, and thought Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey had waited too long to punish him.
“Many people of color and women who worked at this platform and used this platform warned about the dangers of Trump and all of his supporters and these extremists using this platform,” Gomez, the founder of Proyecto Solace, said on Bloomberg Television Friday. “But unfortunately no one listened.”Earlier today, Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of civil rights and advocacy groups, threatened to organize another advertiser boycott from Facebook Inc., Twitter, and Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, if the social media platforms didn’t remove Trump from their platforms permanently by Jan. 20.
The coalition, which includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change, organized an advertiser boycott of Facebook in July over the proliferation of hate speech on the platform.
Trump tried his best to circumvent the block against Twitter’s terms of service. Shortly after his account was banned, he tweeted from the official @POTUS account, saying he might start his own network.
“We will not be SILENCED!” he said. “STAY TUNED.”
Twitter immediately removed the tweets. That account will be handed to Biden on Inauguration Day. Trump tried again using his campaign’s account, @teamTrump, and that was also suspended immediately.
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