Facebook and Twitter have finally provided an answer to what has been one of the most pressing questions of Donald Trump’s presidency: what would it take for him to really lose his accounts?
After years of harsh criticism, this is no longer a hypothetical question. Facebook and Twitter both temporarily suspended Trump’s account, after the president incited a crowd to storm the Capitol. For Twitter, the suspension lasted less than a day and resulted in the deletion of only three tweets. While Facebook imposed a longer penalty, extension its initial ban from one day to “at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
While this was the first time the platforms had imposed any ban on the president, it was far from the first time that companies had come under pressure to do so.
Twitter, which has long been Trump’s favorite social media app, has faced questions about Trump’s rhetoric since its inception started promoting the birther conspiracy theory. In 2017, critics argued that Trump’s tweets about North Korea broke company rules regarding violent threats. Twitter finally said no; explaining that under his “Notoriety” policy tweets from world leaders were generally viewed as being in the “public interest”, and the company therefore had an obligation to let them stay active.
Dorsey made a similar point last year, when she was pressed by Congress to explain why Twitter did not sanction Iranian leader for threatening Israel. “We didn’t find these violated our terms of service because we saw them as ‘saber-rattling’, which is part of the discourse of world leaders in concert with other countries,” Dorsey said. at the time.
Twitter made a concession between these two events, however. In 2019, the company announced that it tweets tag politicians who would otherwise break its rules while still allowing them to be seen. The company said it was trying to “strike the right balance between allowing free expression, fostering accountability and reducing the potential damage caused by these tweets.”
Some things to consider are “journalistic value” and whether a Tweet is of public interest 3/6
– Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
This is the policy put to the test last May when Trump tweeted that “when the looting begins, the shooting begins” in response to protests against the murder of George Floyd. Twitter said the tweet glorified violence and put a “public notice” on it.
While Twitter has at times seemed reluctant to punish Trump, Facebook has been even more permissive. The company has notably refused to verify the facts about Trump (or any other politician) with Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly claiming an aversion to his company becoming an “arbiter of truth.” But the first Trump-influenced rule change came in 2015, when he was still just a presidential candidate.
At the time, Trump released a video calling for a ban on Muslims from entering the country. Facebook employees reportedly wanted to remove the video under the hate speech rules. The company ultimately refused to do so and Zuckerberg “was convinced of his desire to delete the post.” according to The Washington Post. In 2016, Facebook officially created an exemption for “Worthy of interest” content that might otherwise break its rules.
Although Facebook said that the “media value exemption” was motivated by the removal (and reinstatement) of a historical photography, he also gave the company cover to avoid applying its rules to Trump and other world leaders.
In 2019, Zuckerberg was actively pushing back calls to Facebook to better control Trump. That year he gave a speech in Georgetown defend freedom of expression. Facebook, he said, “would be wrong on the side of a bigger expression.” A month earlier, Facebook officials confirmed that politicians were not only exempt from company rules, but were accountable to his fact checkers.
Zuckerberg in particular seemed opposed to imposing any sort of limit on Trump. When Twitter checked the president’s tweets on election fraud last year, the Facebook CEO was quick to slam moving. When Twitter restricted Trump’s tweets threatened protesters, Zuckerberg declined to take a similar action. He said – after a phone call by Trump – that Facebook’s policies allow “discussions on the use of force by the state”. (This decision prompted a virtual walkout Facebook employees.)
But Zuckerberg has now changed his mind. The company on Wednesday deleted a video posted by Trump in which he praised rioters as “special” people and then imposed a 24-hour suspension. On Thursday, the company extended the lockout “for at least the next two weeks”.
“Over the past few years, we’ve allowed President Trump to use our platform according to our own rules, sometimes removing content or tagging his posts when they violate our policies,” Zuckerberg wrote Thursday. “We did it because we believe that the public has the right to have the widest possible access to political discourse, however controversial. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving the use of our platform to incite a violent insurgency against a democratically elected government.
The bigger question now may be what Facebook and Twitter decide to do next. After exceeding his deadline (and deleting three tweets), Trump regained his tweet privileges, though the company said a future rule violation could lead to a permanent ban. Facebook has not indicated when it will reactivate its posting capabilities.
Like all of you, I have been feeling so many emotions since yesterday. I tried to put my thoughts here: pic.twitter.com/9xzRvrpk7y
– Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) January 7, 2021
Both companies face growing pressure to ban Trump permanently – an action that just a few months ago would have been unthinkable for platforms. “The time has come for companies in Silicon Valley to stop allowing this monstrous behavior and go even further than they have already done by permanently banning this man from their platforms,” wrote Michelle Obama in A declaration. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin too call for a longer suspension, urging Twitter to impose a more severe penalty. Just like the old Twitter framework Adam sharp, who previously led the company’s work with lawmakers and government officials. Internally, some employees have also asked Twitter to “deactivate” their account, NBC News reported.
Aside from the next two weeks, there is another reason for the urgency of these calls. If Trump leaves office, but declares itself immediately candidate for the 2024 race, Facebook and Twitter may again choose to give him special consideration as a candidate for a position. Although still a hypothetical scenario, the prospect prompted some reviews to ask for a lasting ban before he leaves office.
Whether or not this plays into Facebook or Twitter’s decision making is unclear. What is clear is that they have less incentive than ever to come up with excuses as to why it is okay for Trump to break their own policies. Trump’s accounts may finally have to follow the same rules as everyone else.