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Technology Brief #32

Twitter Dumped Trump, For Good

By Scout Burchill

January 25, 2021

Summary:

On January 6th, in the wake of the Capitol Hill riots, Twitter announced that President Donald Trump’s account would be suspended. Twitter followed this up on Friday, January 8th by permanently banning President Trump from its platform “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Other tech platforms almost immediately followed suit, including Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Snapchat, Discord, Stripe and Facebook, which declared a ban “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.” Facebook has since sent this decision to their newly created oversight board for further review.

Twitter’s attempts to more aggressively moderate Trump’s Twitter feed have escalated drastically over the past year. Early on in the Coronavirus pandemic, Twitter began fact checking and labeling misleading claims about the COVID-19 virus, of which the former President was a leading source of misinformation. The social media company significantly ramped up these measures in the fall to combat false claims about mail-in voting and election fraud. Trump was a primary target of these policies, as well, as he often spread false and misleading claims, especially after the 2020 election. Despite losing the popular vote by 7 million votes, Trump continues to claim that the election was stolen from him. The violent siege of Capitol Hill on January 6th, and Trump’s refusal to concede the election, was the tipping point for Twitter and many other tech companies.

The Trump ban has fueled already heated discussions about the power of Big Tech and their inconsistent and seemingly ad hoc moderation policies. Reaction to the ban was largely mixed as many people celebrated what they considered to be a long overdue consequence of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, while others viewed it as a troubling overreach of private corporate power verging on totalitarian censorship. Multiple global leaders, including Angela Merkel, Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador and now imprisoned Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, have called the ban problematic, but other officials, such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Manchin, have called it appropriate. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, defended his company’s decision, calling it, “the right decision for Twitter,” but admitted that it sets a “dangerous” precedent.

Analysis:

For the past five years, Twitter has been Trump’s bully pulpit and, for better or worse, one of his most powerful governing tools. It helped launch him into politics and it will surely be seen as a defining aspect of his presidency. He utilized it as a tool of diplomacy, a messenger of policy pronouncements, a megaphone for frustrations and falsehoods, an instrument of control over media narratives, a propellant to fuel conflict and culture wars, and a bludgeon to beat down disloyalty from within his party and target enemies outside of it. Although talk of banning Trump from Twitter is nothing new, the permanent ban of Trump’s account came as a surprise to many.

While it is hard to imagine many other scenarios meriting such a swift reaction (The attempted overthrow of the democratic process is certainly high up there!), there are lingering questions about the amount of power that Big Tech companies multilaterally flexed over the control of public discourse. These questions have been with us for a while. However tech companies’ ability to actually do what was always considered only hypothetical, the banning of a sitting president, brings these questions into new light. Whether or not you agree with the decision, which most Americans in fact do, this coordinated crackdown by tech companies should trouble people concerned about growing corporate power and a lack of transparency, as well as a lack of democratic accountability and governance. The details surrounding Trump’s permanent ban help elucidate this larger issue.

The permanent suspension of Trump’s account on January 8th, two days after the Capitol Hill siege, was announced by Twitter in response to two tweets that the company claimed violated its glorification of violence policy. In the first tweet, Trump announced that he would not be attending the Inauguration and in the second he wrote that his supporters, or “American Patriots,” would have a voice long into the future and would not be disrespected any longer. It is hard to see why these tweets, of all of Donald Trump’s tweets, warrant a permanent ban. Is the glorification of violence only unacceptable when it results in real world violence? If so, then why wasn’t a ban warranted over the summer when Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts?” The point is that, yes, Twitter is well within its rights to ban Trump from its platform, but this still begs the question of why Twitter’s policies seem so arbitrary and ad hoc.

As comically noted by some Twitter users, the ban sent a clear message to rule breakers that they will be held accountable, but only after they have attempted to overthrow the government and their party has lost elections in all major seats of government. Look no further than the Rohingyan Genocide in Myanmar, which was incited on Facebook, or the rise of gang violence in Chicago, which Facebook abetted by making rival gang taunts go viral, to see that the policies of these businesses have very serious real world consequences. Why should our elected officials have to make impassioned appeals to Jack Dorsey, an unelected technocrat, in the wake of a violent upheaval on Capitol Hill?

Many point to political considerations and business interests to explain Twitter’s decision making as well as their policy changes and enforcements over the years. Since 2016, the company gained millions of new users from the simple fact that Trump used it. So much of the Trump presidency, from politics to media and journalism, revolved around the social media platform. As the public and even government representatives called on Twitter to enforce its own policies against the president’s tweets, the company resorted to half-measures. By introducing new features, Twitter tried to appease both sides but ultimately drew the ire of both the left and the right. With Trump on the way out and an incoming Biden Administration that has repeatedly criticized Big Tech for not doing enough to moderate content, the decision to ban Trump is a move to reconcile with the evolving political atmosphere. Other factors weighing on the decision may include the massive antitrust cases looming over Google and Facebook and Biden’s endorsement of repealing Section 230, which gives platforms immunity from the negative costs incurred by harmful content circulating on them.

Reforming and regulating Big Tech and social media platforms will be a major concern of the Biden Administration. The administration should pursue changes that mitigate the power these companies have to single-handedly make important decisions that bear heavily on the health of our society. The fate of our democracy and important questions of governance shouldn’t be dictated by the whims and bottom-lines of a few CEOs.

Learn More:

Twitter’s Permanent Ban of Donald Trump

https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html

Jack Dorsey’s Statement

https://twitter.com/jack/status/1349510769268850690

Internet Platform Responses to the Capitol Hill Riots

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dNC87RtdPWBXXReTsrAl-Sknw4PtwanPX0CA_oi20ec/edit

World Leader Responses

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/11/a-bad-sign-world-leaders-and-officials-blast-twitter-trump-ban

Article on Rohingyan Genocide

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html

Article on Social Media Fueling Gang Violence

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/06/13/how-emoji-can-kill-as-gangs-move-online-social-media-fuels-violence/

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