We finally know what it takes to get Donald Trump suspended from social media.
Thursday morning, after a day when a crowd of supporters of the president violently invaded the United States Capitol, the president’s Twitter account was temporarily frozen; YouTube had removed its last video; and, more remarkably, Mark Zuckerberg had announced that Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were on indefinite suspension.
How did we get here? The streak that led to Trump’s suspension for inciting violence began, ironically, with his call for peace. Minutes after President-elect Joe Biden gave a speech urging him to call the crowd, Trump released a brief recorded video in which he told his supporters to “go home.” Problem is, he couldn’t resist insisting that the election was stolen – the precise false claim underlying the chaos of the day. Soon, Facebook and YouTube removed the video, and Twitter added a fact-checking tag and blocked users from liking, retweeting, or replying to it. (Eventually, Twitter deleted it as well.) Facebook and Twitter also deleted similar posts in which Trump was out of hand calling for peace while repeating his rigged election claims. As Facebook put it in a blog post, the video and the messages were likely to “contribute rather than reduce the risk of continued violence”.
Taken in isolation – and remember that thought, we’ll come back to it – this explanation struck me as strange. Trump’s announcement was brief; you can also read the whole thing:
“I know your pain. I know you are hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was an overwhelming election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now. We must have peace. We must have law and order. We must respect our great people in public order. We don’t want anyone to be hurt. It is a very difficult time. There has never been a time like this when such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country. It was a fraudulent election, but we cannot play these people’s game. We must have peace. So go home. We love you. You are very special. You saw what is going on. You see how others are treated so bad and so bad. I know what you’re feeling. But go home and go home in peace.
It was crazy stuff – classic Trump – but I find it hard to read it as an incitement to more violence. Yes, he repeated the myth of the “stolen”; but his followers had already steeped in this particular beer for months. What was new here was that Trump repeatedly told them to go home. I went to Speak, the self-proclaimed “free speech” platform and de facto right-wing Twitter, to see how the video was received by Trump supporters. Judging by the comments, many were furious or disappointed, or insisted that the rioters were really Antifa plants, but they were also interpreting Trump’s message literally – that is, as a call to be remove. (Whether someone already in the crowd was likely to take a break and watch a video is another question.)
Why have the major platforms concluded otherwise? In an interior note obtained by the New York TimesMike Isaac, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, described the video as “expressing his support for those behind the violence.” The fact that Trump told the rioters that he loved them, that they were “special,” was more striking than his calls for peace. In a way, it was Charlottesville 2.0: a replay of when Trump, in attempting to condemn white supremacist violence, insisted there were “very good people” attending the infamous Unite rally the Right.