On Wednesday, January 8 following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by right wing extremists, Twitter shocked the world by issuing a lifetime ban to lame-duck and now former President Donald Trump. Facebook, Instagram, and many other social platforms followed suit, issuing partial, full or indefinite bans. Can they do that? While many believe these actions are well-deserved (and long overdue), they raise important questions about the power held by social media companies and what happens if it remains unchecked and unregulated. In this post, we explore what banning Donald Trump from social media means for the future.
So, what exactly happened?
The permanent ban from Twitter came after an initial 12-hour suspension following the violent insurrection on January 6. Twitter cited several tweets from @realDonaldTrump appearing to encourage the rioters, including a video which contained his false claims that the election was stolen from him.
For a brief period when the sitting President’s account was active again, he sent two tweets that seemed to be the last straw for Twitter’s top executives.
One read, “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!!!”
And the other, “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
In a public statement, Twitter said it made the decision to ban Donald Trump “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” posed by these tweets.
Facebook and Instagram quickly jumped on the bandwagon, initially barring Trump from posting to the platforms for 24 hours and later extending the ban at least until his term was up. Since then, at least 14 other platforms have imposed some type of restriction on 45, and Parler, a social media app for conservatives and far-right extremists that Amazon hosted, was shut down.
Can They Do That?
No one can deny the massive role platforms such as Twitter and Facebook play in politics, especially since 2016. While misinformation and lies circulated freely, these platforms stood by and allowed it to happen, reaping massive advertising revenue while claiming they are champions of free speech.
But that freedom has its limits. And while the conservative reaction to banning Donald Trump was to swiftly call it unconstitutional, the fact is these actions are perfectly legal. The First Amendment does not apply to private organizations and, after the two most vitriolic election cycles and the most contentious presidential term our country has ever seen, many are asking themselves why it took so long to impose a ban in the first place.
A key question is: Should unelected tech executives really be in charge of who does and doesn’t have a public voice? Without proper checks and balances placed on these companies, who really holds the power within our society? Should social media be held to the same standard as publishers and news media, as many are demanding?
Time will tell what the long-term fallout of these unprecedented moves to shutter a world leader’s social media accounts will be, but there is no doubt big tech will face a long-demanded reckoning this year about their fundamental natures and how their own power is regulated. In the European Union, which has policed the actions of tech giants far more aggressively than in the U.S., EU Vice Commmissioner Margrethe Vestager hopes the new Biden administration brings an opportunity for a transatlantic discussion about the relationship between democratic societies and digital giants.
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