Facebook and Twitter have banned US president Donald Trump from posting on their platforms, following a riot on Capitol Hill that resulted in five deaths and saw Trump supporters storm Senate chambers and trash the offices of elected representatives.
The riot – held on the day when the US Congress was scheduled to certify the electoral college results – began with a Trump rally (promoted by him on social media) in which the outgoing president continued to wrongfully claim the US election result was fraudulent and called on his supporters to march on Capitol Hill.
Since losing the general election in November, Trump has repeatedly used his social media pages to say the result was invalid despite a growing number of court cases and evidence to the contrary.
The idea of a false result or ‘stolen’ election spread online and led to last Thursday’s events in which rioters brandishing Trump flags breached the home of the US government.
The Capitol Hill riots were the last straw for social media companies.
On his personal Facebook page last Friday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risks of letting Trump use Facebook in the last two weeks of his term “are simply too great” as he already used the platform “to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government”.
Zuckerberg added that Trump would remain banned from Facebook and Instagram until “the peaceful transition of power is complete”.
A day later – after it purged the site of other QAnon conspiracy theory pushers – Twitter permanently banned the @realDonaldTrump account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.
Twitter published an analysis of two Trump tweets following the Capitol Hill riot in the context of their interpretations, ultimately deciding the outgoing US president had violated the social media company’s ‘Glorification of Violence’ policy by saying the “American Patriots” who voted for Trump would have “a giant voice long into the future”.
Twitter also claimed Trump’s follow-up tweet that said he would not attend Joe Biden’s Inauguration later this month “may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending”.
After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.https://t.co/CBpE1I6j8Y— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021
Trump initially tried to subvert the Twitter ban by co-opting the official President of the United States (POTUS) account to rail at the social media platform which he used to direct and influence the mainstream news cycle before and during his presidency.
“We will not be silenced,” Trump said from the POTUS account.
“Twitter is not about free speech. They are all about promoting a radical left platform where some of the most vicious people in the world are allowed to speak freely”.
He also said the Trump team had been in talks with other social media sites and will “look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future”.
Twitter promptly removed the POTUS tweets.
Nowhere to hide
As tech companies raced to distance themselves from the group of would-be insurrectionists, some internet users began doxing rioters while some employers fired workers who posted about their own attendance at the Capitol.
Amid the chaos online and in real life, alternative platform Parler – promoted for its supposed adherence to ‘free speech’ – continued to gain users as people fled from platforms where their rhetoric and worldview was no longer welcomed.
Soon enough, however, Parler found itself caught in the firing line as hosting services pulled support for the alternative social media platform.
Google dropped the Parler app from its Play store, citing the need for apps with user-generated content to have “moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence”.
Parler’s own community guidelines are less strict than those of notorious image board 4chan and contain only two principles: don’t use Parler as a tool for criminal behaviour; and don’t spam.
By Sunday, Amazon had also given Parler the boot, saying it would take the site off its hosting infrastructure in what Parler CEO John Matze called “an attempt to completely remove free speech off the internet”.
“We will try our best to move to a new provider right now as we have many competing for our business,” he said.
“Amazon, Google and Apple purposefully did this as a coordinated effort knowing our options would be limited and knowing this would inflict the most damage right as President Trump was banned from the tech companies,” he said.
“This was a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the market place.”
The power of big tech
The ensuing digital carnage threatens to further polarise an already divided polity as a portion of the political sphere is effectively quarantined from the general public at the will of US tech giants.
It’s a complex issue that fails to neatly fit along the left-right continuum as some pundits breathe a sigh of relief following years of outrageous Twitter behaviour from Trump while simultaneously growing wary of the unchecked power held by CEOs of massive tech companies.
New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose warned against “corporate autocracies masquerading as mini-democracies” headed by men whose “names have never appeared on a ballot” yet they hold the power to silence, promote, and control information in any way they see fit.
Lawyer for social activist group the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Kate Ruane, said in a statement that these platforms are “indispensable for the speech of billions” and the power to silence users “should concern everyone”.
“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 said.
The Trump banning is also easily spun to fit the narrative that he and his supporters have been treated ‘unfairly’ by social media giants – a bugbear of the Trump administration that has seen the White House ask for people to share their experiences (and personal data) and resulted in an Executive Order calling for a review of laws that effectively distance internet companies from the content posted on their platforms.