“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said on Thursday.
The ban was the final moment in a long journey for the microblogging platform when it comes to US President Donald Trump.
Since Trump took office, if you wanted to know what was on the mind of the US president, you would turn not to official White House channels but instead visit the @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed.
While Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks have sometimes been nothing more than a source of amusement — such as the covfefe situation and musings on purchasing Greenland — the results of Trump’s expanded outreach, made possible through social media, took a more sinister turn as the latest US election began, mainly focused on allegations that the election was subject to fraud.
This was, perhaps, the first time in history that a leading political official used an unfiltered channel to speak to supporters and critics alike with such frequent dedication. As ZDNet’s David Gewirtz notes, Trump has tweeted close to 60,000 times since 2009, 34,000 times of which were from the day he declared himself a presidential candidate.
When a major political figure elects to use a private company as a sounding board for their thoughts, broadcasting them to roughly 88 million people without any form of official review or censoring, the world takes note.
Words matter, as we saw in the attack on the US Capitol building, and this has become a hard lesson for Twitter to digest.
As rioters took selfies, rifled through offices, caused substantial damage, stole items, and caused injury, it was not just law enforcement that stood to attention — it was private technology companies, too.
Suddenly finding themselves at the heart of insurrection, after years of being used as communication channels by the US president, now impeached for the second time, Twitter and Facebook — alongside other companies — were also forced to act.
On the day of the attack on the Capitol, Trump attended a “Save America” rally, claiming once again that the election had been stolen, adding that “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
While the president also said, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” a comment arguably showing that Trump did not support the destructive actions of those who participated in the Capitol attack, it was the content later posted to Twitter that finally forced the platform to make its own sentiments known.
Hours after the riot began, the world was waiting for the US president to break his silence. In a typical fashion, Twitter was chosen as the platform, and in a video posted to his feed, Trump said:
“Go home. We love you, you’re very special. You’ve seen what happens, you’ve seen the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel.”
There was, perhaps, no other moment that reflected so strongly how a technology company had become the gatekeeper and mouthpiece to a political behemoth and a factor in potential threats to public safety.
Trump has been accused of having “blood on his hands” by “inciting the insurrection.” If Twitter did not act, and more content was posted that encouraged the actions of his supporters further, the company may have been labeled in a similar way as the conduit to further unrest.
Twitter cut Trump off, suspending his account pending review. The company has now permanently banned him from the network and also appears to be monitoring the official @POTUS handle for any signs that Trump is attempting to post from it.
Facebook and Instagram have suspended his accounts until at least Inauguration Day when President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take office. Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitch have followed suit.
Two tweets posted by the president were considered “likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021, and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so,” Twitter said, leading to the ban.
Now, Twitter’s chief has gone into further detail as to why the suspension of an account belonging to a president had to take place, saying that the ban was “the right decision for Twitter.”
It was only a tweet, but you could almost feel the resignation in the tone of Dorsey’s explanation.
“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban [Trump],” the CEO said. “We made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter.”
“We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety,” Dorsey added. “Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.”
However, the executive also said that the need to remove the US president’s channel highlighted “a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.”
This, perhaps, is when a company that began its journey as a provider of a platform for open and free discourse makes the transition into a hub for how politics, beliefs, and actions are influenced — and is forced to face what the ramifications on a nationwide — or global — scale could be.
Influencers can use their channels to tout products and make a quick buck; conspiracy theories can run rampant, anti-vaxxers can swap stories and claims, and now political leaders can use their social media outreach to spur followers into action, potentially with fatal consequences, as the deaths linked to the Capitol attack show.
Opinions are divided. Twitter has been accused of double standards and targeted censorship by removing Trump but allowing other malicious content to spread, whereas others have applauded the decision as overdue.
Some agencies, including the civil rights outfit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say that the company was simply exercising its rights as a private company with user terms of service — but adds that more needs to be done to maintain a balanced and transparent approach.
“A platform should not apply one set of rules to most of its users, and then apply a more permissive set of rules to politicians and world leaders who are already immensely powerful,” the EFF said in a statement. “Instead, they should be precisely as judicious about removing the content of ordinary users as they have been to date regarding heads of state.”
When a corporate entity has the power to silence voices that can turn the tide of public discourse, this is also a heavy responsibility — and one that, perhaps, private companies should not have in the first place.
Private companies have intervened in politics and law for decades through lobbying. However, it may be the sudden and deeply impactful example of corporate power on the political scene, by silencing Trump in such an immediate and public fashion, which has changed the discussion concerning free speech, censorship, and where lines should be drawn.
“Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation,” Dorsey said. “They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”
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