The storming of the Capitol by a few nutters in fancy dress seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding Trump’s relationship with social media.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in, of course, a Facebook post, that it is banning the US President from Facebook and Instagram indefinitely. Meanwhile Twitter has made it clear that Trump is on his final strike and that a single future infraction of its convoluted and constantly evolving policies will also result in a ban, or ‘permanent suspension’ as these companies insist on euphemising.
Future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 7, 2021
It seems clear that, while Trump didn’t specifically suggest the storming of the Capitol, he is at the very least guilty of rabble-rousing and encouraging a mob he knew he couldn’t control. He will have largely done so over social media, so this seems to be a rare example of speech genuinely leading to harmful outcomes. It’s therefore hard to criticise Facebook and Twitter for wanting to be seen to act decisively in this case.
But it still sets an ominous precedent (no pun intended). Consider the first sentence of the final paragraph of Zuck’s post: “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.” Facebook is clearly acting in an editorial capacity and is demonstrating its ability to exclude anyone, at any time, for reasons of its own.
Many commentators are applauding Facebook for this move, while still bemoaning the fact that it ever permitted Trump onto the platform in the first place. But presumably they wouldn’t feel the same if a politician or public figure they favoured was subjected to similar treatment. Maybe Trump does need censoring at this time, but let’s not pretend this is anything else.
It will be interesting to see what the Biden administration does about the Section 230 debate. Section 230 protects internet platforms from prosecution over the content they host on the understanding that they have no active editorial oversight. Every intervention such as this undermines that status and makes the need to reform Section 230 more apparent.
The reason it matters, as Trump has done more than anyone else to demonstrate, is that social media platforms are where today’s public discussion occurs and are the primary means for politicians to communicate with their constituents. If Silicon Valley becomes the arbiter of which politicians are allowed to participate in the public discussion, we’re likely to see more examples of disenfranchised people taking the law into their own hands in future.