On January 6, 2021, riots broke out in Washington DC, as an angry mob stormed the US Capitol. Though the rioters bore a striking resemblance to the inhabitants of trailer parks in Florida, scenes of armed and furious men seizing control of America’s seat of government shocked the nation, and the world. Some went as far as describing the riots as an attempted a coup, a last-minute attempt to block the Biden presidency and secure power for current President Donald Trump. Yet, much like the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, the 2021 riots demonstrated that anger, conspiracy theories, and drunken buffoons are not enough to challenge democratic traditions and institutions.
One of the most controversial outcomes of the riots was Twitter’s decision to ban President Trump from Twitter, his medium of choice over the past five years. According to the company’s blog, the decision was based on concerns that the president would continue to incite to violence online, which may cost further lives. In Twitter’s words:
After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.
Since the suspension of Trump’s accounts, scholars, lawyers, activists and even world leaders have commented on this “unprecedented” move. In this post, I wish to address three recurring arguments made in relation to Trump’s suspension. The first relates to freedom of speech and the broader, societal implications of Twitter’s decision. By banning Trump, activists argue, the company has set a precedent whereby it may choose to block any user over his language. Free speech pundits assert that Twitter has effectively taken in upon itself to define terms such as “incitement” or “violence” while these are legal terms that should be defined by courts and not Palo Alto executives. Moreover, censorship, it is claimed, is a slippery slope. Today, Trump is silenced, tomorrow it may Joe Biden, or Angela Merkel, or you and I. Finally, Trump has been singled out. Other political leaders who use social media to spread malicious content, or publish inaccurate information have not been banned. In other words, Twitter has committed the offense of “selective enforcement.”
While the freedom of speech argument is compelling, it is also groundless. First, Twitter is a private platform and it may suspend any user it choses, for any reason it chooses. In this sense, Trump’s banishment demonstrates the awesome power that social media companies have amassed in modern societies. Second, over the past five years, Donald Trump has been singled out — to his advantage. The president has repeatedly violated Twitter’s code of conduct, be it in his use of vulgar language, his calls for civic unrest, and his deliberate spread of inaccurate information. Twitter has always accommodated Trump, given that one cannot ban the president of the US with the same ease s/he would ban an individual Twitter user. The president should be afforded some leniency as he uses Twitter to converse with the American people, to announce foreign policy achievements, and even threaten foreign countries. In other words, it is through Trump’s misuse of Twitter that users may learn about events shaping the globe.
But the freedom of speech argument is non-relevant, given that the right to free speech is not accompanied by the right to a megaphone. As another scholar recently argued, freedom of speech is maintained so long as individuals are allowed to express their opinions freely without fear of government reprisals. One may express his opinions by speaking in a park, a family dining room, or a classroom. Yet states are not required to equip each citizen with a megaphone that increases the reach of their opinions. Put differently, arguing that access to Twitter is a form of free speech is like arguing that during the 19th century, all democracies should have paid for the publication and circulation of each citizen’s newspaper bearing his/her commentary on life and politics. A form of “the daily me.”
The second argument made in relation to Trump’s banishment focuses on the timing of Twitter’s decision. For five years, Twitter has forgiven Trump’s misuse of Twitter. So why has it decided to block him now? It should be noted that Twitter’s decision is not really unprecedented as it blocks users on a daily basis. The company’s decision is unique in that it involves a head of state and that it has treated the Capitol Hill riots as significantly different than others instances of violence facilitated by Trump, such as the events in Charlottesville. And yet, timing is everything and it stands to reason that Twitter banned Trump at this moment for three reasons. First, Trump has been a nightmare for Twitter. The president has become so synonymous with this social network that Brand Trump almost eclipsed Brand Twitter. The riots on Capitol Hill, which echoed the sights of Latin American dictatorships rather than the US, offered Twitter the excuse necessary to ban Trump for life. It is scary to imagine how citizen Trump would have used Twitter in the coming years as he prepared for a 2024 presidential bid.
Moreover, Twitter saw an opportune moment to curry favor with the incoming administration, one who will be forced to continue the slow process of regulating social media. A British politician once said that governments move slowly, but once they move, they do so decisively. Social media regulation, which is expected to progress in coming years, is an important societal process and Twitter may have decided to enter its negotiations with the Biden administration through demonstration of goodwill. Finally, Trump’s ability to reverse Twitter’s decision is limited at the moment. Had Twitter blocked him a year ago, Republican Senators would have stormed television stations accusing Twitter of “liberal censorship,” and suggesting that the ban was orchestrated by George Soros from his underground layer in Area 51.
The third argument suggests that Trump’s banishment will have long-term repercussions. Indeed, social media companies are all tied to one another. A decision by one platform to ban a prominent user, demands actions from all other companies. In the wake of Twitter’s decision, Facebook announced that it will block Trump’s account for a month. An insignificant gesture, as Twitter was Trump’s main vehicle for communicating with his supporters, hijacking the media’s agenda and obtaining his political goals.
At the moment, Trump’s banishment isolates him from more than 80 million followers. Yet more importantly, the very decision to block a politician and head of state will force social media companies to contend with politicians use and miss-use of platforms, a task they have long since feared. For how does one regulate political arguments? Where is the line between rhetoric and incitement to violence? Can one separate spin from actual misinformation? And what is “abusive” or “offensive”? In short, Twitter’s decision will force social media companies to become editors, a role they have repeatedly refused to pay arguing that they are merely platforms, and bear little or no responsibility for the content published on their platforms. This is a seismic shift in the world of social media. Finally, one has to wonder if social media companies’ new regulations of politicians will not backfire as opposition leaders and democratic activists will be banned with the same ease as right-wing conspiracy theorists?
From a diplomatic perspective, Twitter’s decision has also sent ripple effects through Europe which has long since sought to regulate social media companies. This is perhaps best captured in a statement made on behalf of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is no friend to Trump or his online shenanigans.
“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” Merkel’s spokesman said. He said exceptions can be made to that right, “but based on the law and based on what the law defines, not based on the resolution of social media platforms and from that point of view, the chancellor sees the permanent suspension of the US president’s account as problematic.” He added, though, that the German government believes that social media platforms such as Twitter have a “high responsibility so that political communications don’t get poisoned by hatred, lies, incitement to violence.” He said it is right “not to stand by idly if there are postings on certain channels which fall into this category.”
Whether one supports or opposes Twitter’s decision, it is evident that Trump’s banishment will trigger a series of important conversations on the power of social media companies and the manner in which national leaders may be rebuffed by the very platforms that aided their ascendency.