Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter as well as Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat. This came after a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol last week, desecrating key symbols of the republic.
Many are celebrating the social media bans. But, just because the companies can remove Trump does not necessarily mean they should. There is merit in discussing the decision, as well as its context, which is not free from state pressure, and implications.
The President of the United States of America, who just received an astonishing 74 million votes, can no longer use major online platforms to communicate with the public.
This was clearly a political decision. Twitter continues to allow the anti-Semitic rants of Iran’s Ayatollah, positive descriptions of genocide from Chinese state accounts, and justifications of violence from Antifa in the United States.
The Trump ban clearly undermines public debate. It makes it more difficult for people to both understand Trump’s views and contest his ideas. This is the way public debate should function: people who disagree should seek to put forward better ideas, rather than take the cowardly route of censoring disagreeable perspectives.
The censorship was justified on the condescending basis that reading Trump’s words turns people into rampaging monsters (rather than leaving people slightly amused and mostly confused). Twitter banned Trump for how his tweets were being “received and interpreted on and off Twitter”.
This is quite bizarre. It means they did not remove Trump for the content of the tweets, but rather how Twitter decided the words were being used by others. Twitter claimed the messages were “mobilised by different audiences, including to incite violence”.
But Trump did not call for violence. In fact, the opposite. When the protests turned to violence Trump released a video stating to the protesters “You have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order” – albeit while continuing to spout nonsense about the election result and irresponsibly not condemning mob actions.
Trump’s removal from mainstream platforms will not make the bad ideas go away. In fact, it could very much backfire.
Trump responded to the ban by declaring he would not “SILENCED!” and flagged the possibility of “building out our own platform in the near future.”
Trump and his supporters will now be pushed into even deeper silos, on platforms where people express more extreme views, with little accountability and potentially out of reach from law enforcement.
Their conspiratorial resolve will also be strengthened by the knowledge that others are seeking to censor their ideas.
But this is also a self-defeating strategy for the social media companies. Their latest actions are an admission that speech on their platforms is causing harm. This is only leading to more demands for regulation. Author Anne Applebaum used Trump’s deletion to ask “How should they be regulated?”
She wants a so-called “democratic internet” — with less power for companies. But in practice less powerful private sector actors will mean more power given to the state, who will inevitably seek to censor contrarian voices.
The internet is becoming increasingly closed. The major social media platforms have spent the last year increasingly restricting sharing and removing unorthodox views.
In recent days, a Twitter alternative named Parler has been kicked off Google’s store for Android devices and had its web hosting stripped by Amazon. Meanwhile, there are proposals for social media regulation from Australia, the UK and the European Union. Many Republicans in the US want more regulation to punish social media firms for their treatment of conservative voices.
The Trump ban marks a worrying turning point against free debate online that should concern us all.