Shortcuts / 14 January 2021

Trump’s Social Media Ban

After the assault on the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters last week, Twitter decided to permanently suspend the President’s account. It wasn’t alone – with Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit and even Pinterest making moves to restrict his presence on their platforms. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at why these decisions have been taken, the rise of alternative social media platforms, and what it all means in the ongoing free speech debate.

What happened last week?

A rally of Trump supporters in America’s capital, Washington, DC, turned into a mob that stormed the Capitol building – which is the equivalent of our Parliament House in Canberra. Five people died and it marked the first time the Capitol had been breached since the British attacked in 1812.

What does Trump have to do with it?

The overwhelming conclusion from Democrats, many in his own party and others is that he is directly to blame for the violence. They say that his repeated assertions on Twitter and elsewhere that the election was rigged has seen many of his supporters doubt its legitimacy, giving rise to the ‘Stop the Steal’ protests across the country which then led to last week’s violence.

What about the tech companies?

Tech companies were also a big player in all of this because the events that unfolded were largely organised via social media platforms. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have long faced calls to curb the spread of misinformation and hate speech on their platforms, as well as to censor or delete Trump’s often inflammatory and factually dubious tweets. This is yet another reason many want to see them take further action.

But the platforms had maintained a fairly neutral stance when it came to Trump’s online presence, putting the importance of freedom of speech over censorship. You’ll remember that’s something Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg came under intense pressure for. But that’s changed in recent months with a renewed focus on hate speech and violence.

What did tech companies start doing last year?

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests as well as a presidential election campaign, the conversation about curbing misinformation and hate speech online was given a boost when Trump tweeted way back in May ‘when the looting starts the shooting starts’ in reference to the BLM protests. Twitter hid that post behind a warning that it “glorifies violence”, and started adding fact-checking labels and policy violation notices to the president’s tweets. Then Reddit banned its largest pro-Trump group over hate speech, and streaming video platform Twitch temporarily suspended the president’s channel for similar breaches. Standing alone was Facebook. It’s generally been the most lenient out of all the tech giants, but after hundreds of companies staged an advertising boycott last year over inaction on hate speech, it made moves to crack down on Holocaust denial on its platform, as well as removing Trump campaign ads that included a symbol associated with the Nazis.

So what did Twitter do in light of recent events?

In the aftermath of the violence in Washington DC, Trump tweeted that he would not be attending Joe Biden’s inauguration and that “75,000,000 great American Patriots” who voted for him would not be “disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” Twitter permanently suspended his account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”. They said that, when read in the broader context of the violence, Trump’s tweets could be considered to be inciting further violence, which violated their rules.

What does that mean for Trump’s Twitter presence?

Twitter says his personal account will remain suspended, and if he attempts to start another account, he will be kicked off again. It’s a significant move on Twitter’s part, considering the platform was Trump’s preferred way to reach his nearly 90 million now-former followers. Notably, its his personal account @realDonaldTrump that’s been suspended, but it’s not the only account he gets access to on Twitter.

The White House still have access to two official US government accounts: @POTUS and @WhiteHouse, but Trump’s attempts to tweet from those were quickly deleted by the site’s moderators. Twitter says it will not suspend those accounts unless absolutely necessary, as the handles are due to be handed over to the incoming Biden administration by the end of the month.

What about Facebook and Instagram?

Moving on to other platforms, Facebook and Instagram have also blocked Trump’s account on their platforms, but not permanently. That will stay in place until President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, possibly longer, saying that allowing Trump to use the platform before then is “simply too great” of a risk.

It’s another big move from a company that – as we touched on earlier – has been hesitant in censoring the President. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it came down to the violence in DC. He said, “The current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

Facebook is also now banning all related content – particularly the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement as part of its efforts to curb misinformation and hate speech.

And the other platforms?

Snapchat is another platform that has temporarily banned Trump from posting, as well as live streaming service Twitch. Others like YouTube and TikTok say they are removing videos that they consider problematic. Reddit has shut down threads for inciting violence, and online store Shopify has removed two stores linked to Trump and his campaign following the violence. Even Pinterest, which has unexpectedly been caught up in the action, said it was cracking down on users who were spreading misinformation on the platform.

So with Twitter off the cards, how else could Trump communicate online?

Ever the businessman, he says he’ll considering building his own platform but what seems more likely is that he will join alternative social media apps. They’re generally platforms that say they champion free speech. That means they have fewer rules if any around content moderation, and a focus on user privacy. And it means they’re already in use by those on the fringes of the mainstream who have been kicked off more widely used platforms.

Two apps have been talked about a lot in recent times are Parler and Gab. Parler is the largest platform of the two with around 12 million users. It champions free speech and seems to be popular to those on the far right of the political spectrum, and by all accounts is rife with misinformation, racist content and has become a place for conspiracy theories about Trump’s election defeat to fester.

But isn’t Parler being banned?

It is. Both Google and Apple have recently banned Parler from their app store, saying it couldn’t be supported because of the misinformation and hate speech spread on the app. And then Amazon removed it from its web hosting service, which means that Parler has been forced offline, and it’s racing to find another web host.

How does freedom of speech work in the US?

In the US, the Constitution’s First Amendment protects that right under law. But it’s important to note that the guarantee of freedom of speech as set out in the US Constitution is a little different from the general concept. While free speech is a principle that supports the freedom of someone to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction, the First Amendment is there to prevent the American government from making laws that infringe on freedom of speech, as well as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the right to petition.

So there some restrictions on what you can say, but its not unusual for the Supreme Court to back the right of any person or group – from the Ku Klux Klan to authors and artists – to voice their opinions, no matter how unpopular or distasteful they may be, and many maintain that this is an important feature of a democratic society.

What about those that dispute that?

In recent times there’s been discussion about whether the First Amendment is now actually undermining democracy and should be revisited, particularly in the digital age. Those on that side of the debate say that allowing people such as Trump to freely spread misinformation and incite violence is more dangerous than censorship.

Where do the tech companies come into the free speech debate?

It’s a pretty complex issue – you’ve got the First Amendment, an enduring fundamental belief in the right to free speech and then these online platforms trying to navigate both sides of the argument and devising policies to manage them. But ultimately, tech companies are commercial enterprises, so they’re well within their rights to bar whomever they like from their platforms if they flout their terms of service.

And it’s that ability to make that call that plenty are are concerned about. Champions of democracy including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny have expressed their dismay about moves to remove Trump from mainstream social media. Our own Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this week said he was uncomfortable with the removal of Trump’s account form Twitter, as did Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Squiz recommends:

Rabbit Hole podcast

Public sector guidance sheet on free speech in Australia





Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.