It's amazing how quickly the tide can shift on social media.
Following the initial restrictions placed on US President Donald Trump's accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more, in the wake of this week's Capitol riots, Twitter has now aligned with Facebook in permanently suspending Trump's account.
At the same time, free-speech aligned platform Parler has been threatened with removal from both The App Store and the Google Play store unless it updates its rules around content moderation, due to its failure to "take stronger action to remove posts which seek to incite ongoing violence in the US".
In combination, the moves drastically reduce the President's capacity to share his messaging. As a quick reminder:
- Trump has more than 32 million followers on Facebook, and more than 88 million on Twitter
- Trump has tweeted 23 times per day, on average, thus far in 2021, with around half of those comments also posted to his Facebook Page
- While not directly impacted by the suspension of his personal account, the Trump campaign spent more than $89 million on Facebook ads between April and October last year, underlining the significance of the platform to Trump's outreach efforts
- Reports have indicated that Trump joined Parler on Thursday as a means to maintain connection with his followers
Indeed, Trump has repeatedly credited social media for playing a key role in helping him win office back in 2016, and for subsequently providing him with a platform to refute what he sees as false claims made by mainstream media outlets.
That recognition hasn't stopped Trump from also calling for increased regulation of social platforms, and the removal of their powers to label or hide his messages. But it's clear that social media has played a critical role in his presidency, and that he has gained significant benefit from having direct, largely unfiltered, connection with his supporters.
But now that capacity is gone, or at least reduced.
Trump did shift to the official @POTUS account instead to issue a response, though those tweets were also quickly removed.
As noted in the tweets above, Trump and his team could look to create their own platform, which would be a significant undertaking (Trump has also noted that he's looking to develop his own TV network). It's unclear, however, that negotiating with any of the existing players would improve the situation, given the breadth of the actions announced.
Trump could also look to share messages via staff and connections, so there are still options for Trump to keep in touch. But he did seem partial to a late-night tweetstorm, and to creating media headlines via his short remarks.
So what does Trump do next in response to these restrictions?
In many ways, the damage has already been done - Trump was eventually forced to concede that Joe Biden did, in fact, win the 2020 Presidential election, and commit to an orderly transition of power to the next administration. Trump has also noted that he won't be attending Biden's inauguration - so it seems that, overall, Trump's core mission of holding onto the Presidency is now lost.
Trump has vowed to fight on, but that fight would likely carry over to a 2024 campaign, in which case, Trump does have time to take a break and re-group. And if he waits, maybe his personal accounts will be reinstated (Facebook has said Trump could be reinstated, at least at this stage, while Twitter's terminology, 'permanent suspension', is not entirely clear). Then in three to six months, maybe he looks to rebuild once again, with his mighty social media presence back in full effect.
Trump could lay low and wait things out. But then again, that's never been his style, and it'll be interesting to see what action he does take in response to these latest rulings.
But while the discussion right now is around Trump and his personal use of social media, the latest restriction announcements do raise further queries as to the rules that the platforms choose to apply, and when they choose to apply them, with respect to public safety.
As per Twitter, on the justification for suspended Trump's account:
"Our public interest framework exists to enable the public to hear from elected officials and world leaders directly. It is built on a principle that the people have a right to hold power to account in the open. However, we made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules entirely and cannot use Twitter to incite violence, among other things."
Twitter says that Trump was warned about his tweets on the day of the Capitol riots, and asked to delete those which violated its policies. Trump complied, and his account was subsequently reinstated the following day.
Two days later, Trump tweeted:
“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
He then followed that up with:
“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
Twitter says that, taken in broader context, and given the surrounding division in the US, these two tweets constituted a further violation of its rules, which is what lead to the permanent suspension of his account.
Many Trump critics have praised the move, and applauded Twitter for 'finally' canceling Trump entirely. But the justification here seems loose - while Twitter's saying that these statements could be seen as a further undermining of the election result, and potentially even an incitement to more unrest, it does appear that Twitter has rapidly changed its rules around what it deems acceptable. Which you might think is fine if it works to your benefit, or to your particular political leaning. But without clear, definitive guidelines on such, there are significant risks in reactionary approaches to enforcement like this moving forward.
Some have also suggested that the major platforms have been emboldened by the political power shift. With the Republicans losing control of The White House and the Senate, there will also be a clear change in approach to social media regulation and enforcement. Right-wing politicians had pushed for the platforms to stop interfering with what people share, allowing them unfettered access to their constituents, but left-wing senators are more likely to call for increased restrictions, and limits on what can be shared.
As such, the platforms moving to align with this new dynamic could be a preemptive move to 'make good' with the coming political powers, which could help in future stouches over Section 230, regulation, data privacy, etc. Facebook, for example, is facing a new investigation by the FTC over anti-competitive behavior, and it will likely need all the political leverage it can muster in order to secure a favorable ruling.
Maybe, by re-shaping their policies to be more in-line with the new administration, the platforms can demonstrate a willingness to work with them on changes, as opposed to being forced into unwanted limits or changes.
Some have also suggested that this is PR puffery. Twitter and Facebook could have banned Trump at any time, like when he provoked racial tensions during the #BlackLivesMatter protests, or threatened nuclear war against North Korea via tweet. But now they say he's gone too far. When he's in his last days of office, and his electoral defeat has been made official. Much like the Trump staffers announcing their resignations in the last few days - now you can look virtuous, when the end is clearly in sight - but you were able to overlook every other issue along the way, when it was to your own benefit.
Does that also apply to Facebook and Twitter, which have clearly benefited from the millions of posts, Likes, comments and shares of Trump-related updates? Maximizing engagement is what both Facebook and Twitter are pushing for, and Trump's inclination to use social media, as opposed to traditional media channels, certainly delivered them more of it.
Is this just a public-facing stunt to appeal to the next political stage?
The bottom line here is that without formal policies to protect against similar situations in future, developed as a result of the Trump era, it doesn't yet seem like we've turned a corner, or learned a lesson, as such.
While Twitter and Facebook will bask in the positive breeze of banning Trump, the policies around those actions are not clear. And they need to be. If the rules have changed, and the platforms are taking a tougher stance against provoking civil unrest, that should be spelled out, so we don't allow this to escalate so far in future. If there are going to be more specific regulations around the growth of divisive groups, like QAnon, that should also be formally established in the wake of this incident.
That's what we really need right now, not just account removals and suspensions, but an acknowledgment that, yes, we allowed this to go on for too long, which almost lead to the downfall of democracy in the US.
How can we stop it? What are the rules that need to be established to avoid the same occurring again in future?
The way forward is not clear, but definitive clarity is, indeed, what is required.