Last week, Twitter banned President Donald Trump, citing two tweets in violation of its policy on the “glorification of violence.” In the first tweet, Trump says his supporters “will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form.” In the second tweet, Trump says he won’t be attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. “These two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence,” Twitter said in a statement, linking the two tweets sent on Jan. 8 to the right-wing insurrection at the Capitol two days earlier. Five people have died as a result of the riots, and dozens of people have been arrested. The FBI warned this week that “armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols ... and at the U.S. Capitol” for the next several days, through Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. In banning Trump, Twitter hopes to mitigate “the risk of further incitement of violence.” On Wednesday, Congress impeached Trump on a single charge: “incitement of insurrection.”
Trump courted the mob in his recent speeches, including his fateful address to supporters gathered outside the White House hours before they stormed the Capitol. But read those two tweets in particular. Do they surprise you? Haven’t we essentially read these tweets a thousand times before? They’re classic Trump: the hyperpartisan aggression, the wild misinformation, the all-caps exclamations, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” They’re no more or less inflammatory than the tweets he was sending more than four years ago when my former colleague Kate Knibbs wrote a case for banning Trump for “direct harassment,” “hate speech,” and “his insistence that the democratic process is untrustworthy.” For years, Trump tweeted and spoke in this exact manner, which Twitter has only now recognized as “incitement.” It’s not Trump’s tweets but rather the press statement from Twitter that “must be read in the context of broader events” in order to decipher its rationale: Trump lost re-election, and so his political authority is nearly exhausted. Facebook and YouTube also have suspended Trump and hidden his posts at least through the inauguration. The dominant web tech companies have at long last consolidated against Trump. He hasn’t changed. So what has changed?
Trump’s social media ban gave way to concern about the larger implications about the role tech companies play in political culture. Facebook and Twitter deplatformed the president. Who’s next? Since Friday, Twitter has shuttered more than 70,000 accounts associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory popular among right-wing extremists. Facebook pledged to remove all content that invokes the insurrectionist slogan “Stop the steal.” Amazon banned the microblogging platform Parler—favored by right-wing politicians and activists as an alternative to Twitter—from its ubiquitous cloud computing infrastructure, Amazon Web Services; Google and Apple banned Parler from their respective app stores. Earlier this week, former Texas representative Ron Paul said Facebook suspended him for violating its terms after he criticized the company for suspending Trump’s account. Last Thursday, Simon & Schuster cancelled Josh Hawley’s book contract given the Missouri senator’s decisive role in disputing ballots in the Electoral College and stoking the mob at the Capitol. So many conservatives view Trump’s suspension as a pretext for restricting conservative speech in general. Trump, Hawley, and other conservatives had already been working to repeal the federal statute that shields social media companies from legal liability for user-generated content. Ironically, Trump and Hawley seem determined, in their efforts to protect conservative commentators from content moderation, to force these companies to moderate more speech under stricter terms.
Personally, I favor the most limited argument in support of the decision to deplatform Trump: He was a troll, he ruined the platform for other users, and, in four years, his apologists never made a strong case for treating his political stature or his official title as inherently exceptional to the rules which bind other users. His account sucked. But there are more expansive implications, concerning a wider variety of users and behaviors, concerning not just Trump but also the vast network which echoes him. The power (and, some would argue, responsibility) to moderate these networks suggests a power to throttle political expression on a massive scale. It also suggests a general abdication of authority to a few web tech billionaires with unhappy track records in content moderation and no direct political accountability to anyone. The progressives who favor Trump’s suspension aren’t altogether indifferent to these concerns. “The fact that Twitter can ban anyone for any reason that doesn’t break nondiscrimination laws doesn’t mean that it should,” Knibbs wrote in 2016.
The competing fears—dereliction of duty vs. overreach—reveal a general feeling of helplessness about the internet serving as the dominant forum for political theater. Facebook and Twitter have existed for a fraction of my lifetime, and yet these companies have quickly annexed the political imagination; now they’re immutable facts and inalienable rights. In recent years, I’ve described social media platforms as a sort of “public square,” as have many others; but now we’re confronting the perils of mistaking a handful of commercial products for civic life. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Amazon have packed the so-called public square into a commercial consortium. If democratic liberty hinges on Twitter permitting the president to regurgitate memes without restrictions or disclaimers, then something much larger than one company’s content moderation policies has gone horribly wrong with the democracy in question. It’s not just conservatives who worry about the informal political authority vested in these companies. When Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren ran for president, she antagonized Facebook, Google, and Amazon. There’s a common villain in her campaign and the anxieties that have surfaced in the past week. It’s not Trump. It’s the web media ecosystem that dictated his obsolescence in its own interests and at its own latest convenience.