The social media giant's decision to suspend US President Donald Trump's Twitter account following the storming of the US Capitol by his supporters has triggered a debate on free speech and monopoly of public discourse.
It’s 2021, and in true dystopian fashion the Taliban has an active Twitter account, but the sitting President of the United States doesn’t.
Earlier on Friday, Twitter permanently suspended the president's account, and wiped all his old tweets.
The Twitter Safety account posted shortly afterwards, saying: "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."
This comes after Trump was similarly banned from Facebook and Instagram following riots at the US Capitol on Wednesday.
Donald Trump Jr, the President’s son, posted a video on Facebook attacking the decision, describing it as "the kinda stuff" that would make the late Chinese communist ruler Chairman Mao "really proud".
Twitter’s decision cited the riot that took place at the US Capitol earlier in the week, as well as its previous warning on Wednesday that any further violations of its rules could lead to a permanent ban. The decision was allegedly made by Jack Dorsey during his vacation at an island in French Polynesia.
The company goes on to detail the specific content that justified their decision, including a tweet shared by Trump on January 8, 2021 that read:
“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
Shortly after, the president tweeted that he will not be attending Biden’s inauguration.
Twitter explains how these tweets led to a ban, stating:
“…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, as well as in the context of the pattern of behavior from this account in recent weeks. After assessing the language in these Tweets against our Glorification of Violence policy, we have determined that these Tweets are in violation of the Glorification of Violence Policy and the user @realDonaldTrump should be immediately permanently suspended from the service.”
It seems the turning point for Twitter was when Trump failed to condemn his supporters who staged a violent riot at the Capitol building as Congress was meeting to certify election results.
In a tweet, Trump shared a video where he gently encouraged the rioters to return home, while reassuring them that he loved them and that they were “special.”
But Trump’s ban by Twitter and other social media platforms raises ethical questions over their complicity in his rise to power, and the damage he’s wrought on the country. This also gives rise to a crucial ethical dilemma: can a rent-paying private enterprise decide on its own to censor the sitting President of the United States?
In many senses, Twitter’s move reflects the power and reach of Silicon Valley’s billionaires, and more critically, their ability to act on it.
This also raises a host of key questions with far-reaching ramifications on civil society, and the future of freedom of speech worldwide.
For instance, what was the process behind this unilateral decision, and who made it? Should a private corporation be able to exert such outsized influence on public communication? What role should social media companies play in mass communication?
For most, given social media companies’ near monopoly on mass communication and publishing, public oversight is required.
While Twitter has defended its right to exercise a permanent ban on users who violate its rules and regulations, the boundaries between free speech and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s ability to censor it, have yet to be clarified.
Social media companies and their role in mass communication = different than the role individual publishers play (ie: the Hawley situation). If the former are closer to natural monopoly seems that rules governing use should have public oversight. Ofc, that opens other thorny Qs.— Bhaskar Sunkara (@sunraysunray) January 9, 2021
For this very reason, in an attempt to install a measure of public oversight over social media giants, Congress held multiple hearings on the issue of monopoly and censorship.
In fact, two months ago, Jack Dorsey testified under oath to Congress that Twitter does not censor conservative voices. Two months later, Trump and tens of thousands of his supporters are facing bans in a blatant, highly-visible inroad on public discourse and the political process.
Twitter asserts that it has resisted banning Trump for years, making the argument that a world leader should be able to speak to his or her citizens without censorship. But that principled stance would not last. The company would reverse course on its position after escalating tweets from Trump that cast doubt on the results of the US 2020 election, and a riot at the Capitol.
I am not a parler user. And I have been saying since November that Biden won and Trump’s failure until yesterday to accept the results of the election were despicable. But deplatforming an entire platform is a dangerous over reaction and looks like an arbitrary abuse of power.— Eli Lake (@EliLake) January 9, 2021
For Twitter, the decision to eliminate Trump’s ability to tweet was pinned on a possibility. Specifically, the potential in Trump’s tweets to mobilise his followers to carry out violence during the Joe Biden inauguration.
The decision to censor or police prior to the committing of an act, a pre-emptive strike, marks a dramatic shift in the publicly-traded company’s approach to moderating content online.
For some, the move is self-serving, especially for a party that once identified as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
But the move is also timely, and for some, opportunistic.
The aggressive change in Twitter’s move towards censorship came after the balance of power in Washington shifted towards Democrats who have long advocated stronger policing of inflammatory content online.
As Republicans turned away from Trump following the riot on Capitol Hill and criticism was levelled against Twitter by Democratic lawmakers, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey faced rising internal pressure of his own.
In an internal letter demanding action, roughly 350 Twitter employees requested an investigation into Twitter’s complicity in the riot going back several years.
Faced with internal and external calls for accountability, Dorsey seems to have opted on taking a stand, potentially in the interest of better optics.
But this isn’t the first time Twitter has come under fire for its role in fostering violence or repressing those who speak out against it. For profit-oriented companies like Twitter, the primary yardstick for success is how much money they can make their investors, making them reluctant to cut down too much on speech. In spite of the exponential growth of white nationalist and radical groups on social media, limiting speech is the equivalent of limited profit.
“The company’s sporadic, impartial effort to systematically deal with white supremacists (and other harassers, including Trump) is revealing. It’s rooted in Twitter’s decision to prioritise driving traffic and its investors’ returns over everything else,” writes Jessie Daniels for Dame Magazine in an article starkly called Twitter and White Supremacy, A love story.
At the heart of the controversy is a paradox surrounding what a rent-paying company can do legally that may nonetheless be illiberal.
By the same measure, Twitter has taken illiberal stances multiple times in the past, flagging and banning hundreds of Kashmiri activists for speaking out against the brutality of the Indian state in the disputed region of Kashmir.
In one case, a tweet decrying India’s use of a teenager as a human shield was removed. In another, a tweet about the plight of the Rohingya was also removed.
But why did Twitter initially allow Trump’s allegedly rule-breaking posts during nearly four years of his presidency, only to choose to ban him now?
While they have expressed concern about Trump’s posts previously, Twitter has never had to explain its prior inaction before. At the heart of this dilemma is the hidden truth that while Twitter has regularly expressed how their ability to ban users is limited by rules, it often leaves unspoken that Twitter writes its own rules.
This flies in the face of the language of rights, law, or an often espoused narrative by large social media companies that they are passive followers to existing rules, or at best active enforcers. The absurdity of the situation is compounded all the more by the fact that Twitter makes its own rules, and enforces them with agency, as it wishes. In light of this, Trump’s ban on Twitter takes on a new light. Twitter could have banned Trump over his repeat inflammatory rhetoric at any time but didn't. This time, they chose to untie their own own hands.
This presents deep dilemmas for the future of free speech, civil society and the democratic political process. With one order, a billionaire who has never been voted into public office was able to silence a democratically elected, if despised, President of the United States.
In one move, a Silicon Valley founder prevented a man who came in second in the largest vote of America’s history, from engaging with proponents and critics. For many, this is the height of cancel culture that woke Twitter seemingly embodies, while paving the way for unaccountable corporate involvement in not only a fully functional democratic process, but also the purging of dissenting voices from public discourse.
This effectively marks a turning point for democracy in the digital age, and one that may not be to its benefit. While characterised as a reflection of the people’s will, it overlooks the fact that corporate power can now unilaterally and preemptively silence holders of public office with impunity.
This sets a new precedent for the internet age, legitimising a new brand of censorship that silences not only inflammatory speech, but removes a legitimate right to self-expression based on how someone may react to it or interpret it. To that end, we become not only responsible for what we think and say, but can also be judged for the potentially limitless interpretations someone can take from our words.
Concerned with the risk of ‘mobilisation’, this form of censorship has no end. Books. Holy books. Political texts. Anthems. Any opinion that could mobilise action faces the threat of censure.