Image: Flickr/Marco Verch Professional Photographer

Social media censorship in action: the story of Donald Trump’s Twitter ban

Wednesday 6 January 2021. The United States Capitol has been stormed by supporters of the outgoing President Trump. Not long beforehand, Trump had held a rally in which he continued to claim the election was stolen from him, and that he would never concede. As people around the world watched violent scenes happen in real time on their phones and computers, POTUS 45 took to Twitter.

“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”. Later came a second tweet. “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!”

These would be some of the last tweets that the @realDonaldTrump account ever sent.

Twitter, who had previously allowed Trump to tweet several controversial statements during his term, decided they had to act

In a video released after the attacks, Trump told the attackers to “go home in peace” but reiterated his belief that the election “was stolen” and his supporters were “special”. Earlier that day he had attacked his own vice-president, Mike Pence, online for not having “the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution”, after the VP chose not to refuse to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory.

Twitter, who had previously allowed Trump to tweet several controversial statements during his term, decided they had to act. Trump’s tweets had already been flagged for misinformation, but this time his account was locked for 12 hours. When he did get it back, it would not be for long. On 8 January, the account was suspended permanently.

In a blog post, Twitter said this was done “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”. They argued that whilst their “public interest framework exists to enable the public to hear from elected officials and world leaders directly” they also made it clear going back years that “these accounts are not above [the] rules entirely and cannot use Twitter to incite violence”. Chief executive Jack Dorsey went on to explain he felt the ban was not something to celebrate but was nonetheless the correct decision.

Many Trump supporters, feeling silenced, took to Parler, a social network that claimed to be unbiased and would allow all to speak without worrying about being deplatformed

Other companies also responded. Snapchat locked Trump’s account. Facebook and Instagram prevented him from posting anything else for at least the rest of his term, and then the decision about whether to lift the ban would be considered by their oversight board. Pinterest and TikTok restricted pro-Trump material, and Discord, Reddit and Twitch all decided to make changes too. YouTube also froze Trump’s account a week after the events at the Capitol. Many Trump supporters, feeling silenced, took to Parler, a social network that claimed to be unbiased and would allow all to speak without worrying about being deplatformed. Among its users were several right-wing figures such as Sean Hannity, Eric Trump, and Ted Cruz. Two months before Trump’s permanent Twitter ban, as news organisations got ready to officially declare a Biden victory, Parler became the most downloaded app of the weekend.

The most powerful man in the world was no longer welcome on some of the world’s most popular sites and apps

It would not last long, however. After the events at Capitol Hill, the app was removed from both the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store. Then, Amazon removed it from their cloud hosting service, also claiming it could be used to incite violence. The most powerful man in the world was no longer welcome on some of the world’s most popular sites and apps. After years of tweets written in capital letters, controversial videos, and widely shared memes, Trump’s last week in office was noticeably different. As he was impeached for a second time, he couldn’t even tweet away the hours like he had done before.

Many of Trump’s supporters were furious. His son, Donald Trump Jr., wrote on Twitter that Americans were “living Orwell’s 1984” and that “free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few”. But what people mean by freedom of speech is not always clear. It’s mentioned in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it is widely understood not to include such things as freedom from criticism or mockery. Despite being so important for democracy to work, it’s often easier to explain what it isn’t than what it is. What many of these definitions have in common though is that they refer to the ability to praise or criticise those in power peacefully. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for instance guarantees “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas”.

Trump now longer has access to lots of his social media accounts, but the government didn’t take that away from him. He can still stand in public and talk about how he disapproves of his successor

Has Trump had his rights taken away then? Probably not. He’s still allowed to criticise the Biden administration if he so wishes. Trump now longer has access to lots of his social media accounts, but the government didn’t take that away from him. He can still stand in public and talk about how he disapproves of his successor. Twitter and Facebook are not governments. They are undeniably powerful, and the impact they and other social networks have on elections and democracy is an issue that will probably be discussed in politics for years to come. But no, going by most definitions a private company not wanting to provide you with an account on their website does not take away your freedom of speech.

Could it still be wrong though? Losing access to your accounts might be legal, but is it moral? Is it censorship? Has Trump been supressed? Those are perhaps more difficult questions to answer. How people answer might depend on what role they think that governments and companies should play, and what responsibilities they have. For example, in a case about whether a religious baker should be forced to provide wedding cakes for a marriage between two men, some Trump supporters argued that the baker should get to decide what services their company provides and not the government. But then if a baker does not have to provide cakes for a wedding they do not approve of, why should a social media site be forced to provide an account for someone they don’t want to? Many on social media accused Trump supporters of hypocrisy. Moreover, if the government prevented tech companies from banning and blocking people based on their political beliefs, this could have serious consequences.

Both Biden and Trump have pointed out what they perceive to be flaws in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, but some Republicans have demanded social media be ‘politically neutral’. As one law professor pointed out though, if sites like Twitter and Facebook had to treat all politicians equally, then “the American Nazi Party would be treated equally to the Republican Party”. If governments became more heavily involved with social media, there is always the possibility that their interference could, either on purpose or by accident, make the situation far, far worse.

leaving all the difficult decisions to tech companies might not be the best idea either

On the other hand, leaving all the difficult decisions to tech companies might not be the best idea either. For a start, they’re not controlled by elected officials. Social media can influence millions, potentially billions, of people’s political views and yet often its users don’t know what is and isn’t allowed to be posted, how decisions are reached about whether to ban someone or if decisions can be appealed. Additionally, there are concerns about whether companies can be trusted to make the right calls. Some, like Branko Marcetic, have argued websites censoring material could lead to oppressed groups also being silenced. Others, like Lon Safko, argue that conversation on the Internet should happen “organically” and anyone offended should merely look away, rather than that information or opinion being removed. However, freedom of speech laws rarely covers all forms of speech. Inciting violence, libel, and hate speech are all commonly excluded, to give a few examples. Most people would surely accept that, at least occasionally, something will be posted that is so dangerous or misleading that it must be removed. If social media giants should not be the ones responsible for censoring it, who should it be instead?

What should or should not be allowed on social media is an incredibly complex issue. There’s not only the question of what is acceptable, but who gets to decide that and when they should be able to act. Freedom of speech is important, but so is speaking responsibly, particularly when fake news can spread faster than ever and many types of hate crime are becoming increasingly common.

Trump appears to have been banished from Twitter but considering how he used it for years beforehand and how many politicians, activists and voters still use social media, this will not be an issue that will disappear anytime soon. Trump’s suspension might have been newsworthy, but it is far from the end of the story.

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