It's a move that many saw coming - though likely not this fast.
Yesterday, following the violent protests in Washington DC, which included a mob takeover of the US Capitol building, various social platforms moved to ban US President Donald Trump from posting - in the short-term, initially, though some have since indicated that the bans could be permanent, which would significantly limit the President's capacity to connect with his constituents in his final sitting weeks.
The incident had been a long time coming. Following the US election, President Trump has repeatedly questioned the validity of the results, which went in favor of President-elect Joe Biden. Trump has cited many unfounded examples of voter fraud and claimed that the election had been 'stolen' by the Democrats in a bid to oust him from power. But after various court cases found no basis for the Trump campaign's claims, US Senators yesterday crossed the final threshold in certifying Biden's victory.
Trump saw yesterday's Congressional hearing as his final, unlikely opportunity to overturn the election result, and called on his supporters to head to the Capitol building to show their support, in the hopes that the show of power would convince Senators to flip the election in his favor.
I will be speaking at the SAVE AMERICA RALLY tomorrow on the Ellipse at 11AM Eastern. Arrive early — doors open at 7AM Eastern. BIG CROWDS! pic.twitter.com/k4blXESc0c— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2021
Trump has also been e-mailing his supporters with calls to 'fight for Trump', which may not have been intended as a literal call to action. But the rhetoric, and the desperate nature of Trump's messaging, which has suggested that this is a 'last stand' for democracy, clearly whipped his supporters into a frenzy. And as a result, when the certification didn't go their way, they turned to violence to make their point.
The subsequent riots left four people dead, and amid the chaos, which saw the Capitol building ransacked, and Senators evacuated, or locked in rooms to stay safe, leaders from all sides called on Trump to calm the surging crowd by issuing an official statement in support of the election results and incoming President Biden. Trump reportedly refused, releasing only one video statement, in which he continued to question the validity of the election result.
That was the final straw for social platforms, following many calls for them to act.
As a result of the incident:
- Facebook removed several of Trump's posts during the riots, before announcing that it had taken the decision to ban President Trump from its platform for 24 hours, citing various policy violations in his related posts. Following this, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the ban on Trump's account would be extended 'indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks' to ensure a peaceful transition to the Biden administration.
- Twitter also added warnings and removed several of Trump's tweets during the incident, before announcing that Trump's account would be locked for 12 hours as a result of the offending tweets. 'If the Tweets are not removed, the account will remain locked.'
- At the same time, Snapchat locked President Trump's account. Snapchat had already limited the reach of Trump's account earlier in the year, but the President had been posting regularly to the app to stay in touch with his audience.
- Instagram also locked Trump's account for 24 hours and additionally blocked the #StormTheCapitol hashtag. Facebook-owned Instagram will also follow Facebook's indefinite ban on Trump's account, which will see him locked out for at least the next two weeks.
- YouTube announced that it will restrict any channel that posts videos containing misinformation about 2020 election results, an action that will extend to the official channels Team Trump. As noted by The Verge, that could also see right-wing news providers like OANN face significant restrictions.
- Shopify has also removed online stores operated by the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign in response to the incident.
In combination, the restrictions will significantly reduce President Trump's capacity to share his messaging, and further question the results of the now officially certified 2020 election results. Trump currently has more than 32 million followers on Facebook, and 88 million on Twitter.
And despite his more recent criticisms of social media in general, Trump has repeatedly cited the reach of social platforms as facilitating his 2016 election win.
As Trump told Fox Business in 2017:
"I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you. [...] When somebody says something about me, I'm able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it. The other way, I would never be get the word out.”
Now, Trump will lose that capacity, something many have suggested should have happened years ago, with Trump repeatedly violating platform terms with his various tweets and posts during his presidency.
Indeed, back in 2017, many called for Twitter to take action against Trump after he essentially threatened nuclear war against North Korea via his tweeted comments.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
But all the major social platforms have thus far been hesitant to take that drastic next step. Because Trump, whether you agree with his approach or not, is the current US President, voted in by Electoral College majority in 2016. As such, the public has a right to hear what he has to say, and the platforms have sought to balance that informational need with their responsibility to control what's distributed via their platforms.
Trump pushed those limits yet again last year, when during the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the US, he shared this message on both Twitter and Facebook.
Civil rights leaders saw this as directly inciting violence, which then lead to the #StopHateForProfit push, which called on advertisers to boycott Facebook ads for a month in response to the platform's failure to act. Many major brands joined the cause, and while it seemingly had little impact on The Social Network's bottom line, it certainly prompted all social platforms to once again reassess their approach to Trump's comments.
Around the same time, Twitter had began labeling Trump's tweets which included misinformation, which prompted the President to call for a review of Section 230 laws which theoretically offer social platforms a level of legal protection over what users post to them.
Given all this, the decision to suspend and ban President Trump's accounts is significant. As noted, some predicted that Trump would likely face social media bans at some stage, given his history, and without the protection of the Office of the President. But no one expected that action to come before he had even left office.
Of course, the bans right now are only temporary, and Trump could regain control of his accounts soon. But it marks a significant step for social platforms, and could lead to a major rethink about how the platforms are used, and how they should approach similar situations in future to avoid them coming to a head like this.
Indeed, the rioters had been planning their actions on social media for months, with many outlining specific plans to storm the Capitol in protest. Many would have likely assumed this was just chatter, but the realization of such claims should serve as a significant wake-up call with respect to the power of social platforms to fuel such movements.
Experts had been warning of such for a long time, and we've now seen the next stage, the next level of online-facilitated civic protest.
Will this force the platforms to take more action, earlier, to limit the same in future?