After years of enabling former President Donald J. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and less-than-presidential behavior, social media platforms finally cut the cord in the days following the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
The two most significant platforms that metaphorically silenced Trump are Facebook and Twitter. The Silicon Valley giants have reputations for allowing Trump’s accounts to stay active, even amid a flurry storm of misinformation concerning the 2020 presidential election and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Each social media platform gave its own reasoning for banning Trump. Twitter, co-founded by CEO Jack Dorsey and long known as Trump’s megaphone, cited its Glorification of Violence policy as to why it permanently suspended his account. The two tweets that it marked as violating its Glorification of Violence policy were, in comparison to some of Trump’s past tweets, tame.
One tweet Twitter cited, posted on Jan. 8, said, “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
The other tweet Twitter flagged said, “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
Twitter went on to say that the tweets did not support the “orderly transition” of power and that “they were highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the U.S. Capitol … ”
Due to the tame nature of the tweets, it seems like these tweets were picked out of convenience rather than actually violating Twitter’s policies. But, the outcome was still the same: Trump’s biggest propaganda machine shut him down and he was kicked out of the digital spotlight that he so dearly loves.
“Losing his huge online following” would effectively “deprive him of cultural influence long into the future," according to an article from The New York Times.
For Facebook, its CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that (Trump) intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden,” as the reasoning behind Trump’s Facebook suspension.
He continued, “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
Following Trump’s social media expulsion, many have questioned why he wasn’t banned earlier.
Zuckerberg provided half an explanation for it. He said, “we believe that the public has a right to broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech.”
But, it’s likely that both platforms allowed Trump’s account to continue due to the vast number of users that Trump brought to their platforms. Before his ban from social media, Trump had approximately 87.3 million followers on Twitter and 35 million followers on Facebook. That’s an incredible amount of people the technology giants now have using their services.
Trump’s internet presence also allowed the social media platforms to truly fulfill the vision their creators had in mind, in some twisted manner. He got people across the globe to connect and interact with each other in a digital space, even if it was in a less-than-friendly way. Why would they want to destroy that?
Something else to take into consideration is the CEOs didn’t want to ban Trump at all based on their own principles and views of the internet. After Twitter kicked Trump from its platform, Dorsey posted a lengthy thread explaining his views on the former president’s removal.
Dorsey said the ban “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over part of the global public conversation.” He continued, “This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet.”
This follows Zuckerberg’s earlier statement that the public has a right to political speech, even if it's contentious. An article from The New York Times also observed that “Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Zuckerberg appear to hate playing the role of speech police, and avoid it whenever possible.”
Their lack of enthusiasm about getting involved aligns with a long-held idea of creating a decentralized democratic internet. By moderating the content on their sites and making these types of decisions, they’re going against the tenets of a decentralized web, something both of them seem to subscribe to.
In the end, removing Trump from social media was the right thing to do. The companies put the good of democracy above their own interests and beliefs and helped mitigate the potential for another insurrection to occur.
Nevertheless, politicians and celebrities on the Right have come out to say that Trump’s social media ban is a violation of freedom of speech. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., took to his 6.6 million followers on Twitter and wrote, “We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few.”
George Orwell’s infamous novel "1984" is often cited in relation to censorship, free speech, free expression and big government conversations. But, Trump Jr.’s reference to the novel and his tweet isn’t exactly applicable to his father’s current social media ban.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a distinguished professor of law and dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, noted that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to Trump’s account suspension because the First Amendment protects people from being censored by the government, not by private companies.
“A private company, no matter how large, does not have to comply with the First Amendment,” he said, according to an ABC News article. “Facebook and Twitter can suspend who they want and there is no First Amendment issue.”
While Trump Jr.’s reference to "1984" was misguided, he still addresses an important point. The real problem is the power that Big Tech has and the dangerous precedent that his ban sets.
In some respects, Facebook and Twitter literally had the fate of democracy in their hands. For a private company to hold that much power over a country and its public discourse is unnerving. The public discourse should be shaped by the people, not a private entity.
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the former deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Center for Democracy, tweeted, “It’s coherent — and in my view absolutely appropriate — to believe both that (i) the social media companies were right to suspend Trump’s accounts last week, and (ii) the companies’ immense power over public discourse is a problem for democracy.”
ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane also weighed in on the discussion.
“We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier,” she said, according to a statement publicized on Twitter.
“(Former) President Trump can turn to his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public, but others — like the many Black, Brown and (LGBTQ+) activists who have been censored by social media companies — will not have that luxury,” she added.
Many social media companies poise themselves on the side of democracy by saying they encourage political conversation by allowing as many people as possible to be able to participate on their platforms, even if it includes hate-groups and demagogues.
But, it seems like the digital spaces the companies created pushed political parties farther apart instead of bringing them together, something they can be blamed for due to how their algorithms work.
Now, all we are left with are questions of where to go from here.
It’s becoming blatantly obvious that Big Tech needs to be regulated in some way. Their political and social influence has surpassed anything anyone could have envisioned and allowing them to continue unchecked could be detrimental for a democracy that is fracturing at its core.