The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.
On January 8th 2021, Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump’s Twitter accounts. This came after he actively incited violence against the Capitol and used his platform to perpetuate false claims about the integrity of the Presidential election, which he lost. In fact, there are claims that he went so far as to engineer the January 6th storming of the Capitol, as he encouraged violence against members of the BLM movement in May.
With this in mind, was Twitter’s ban on Trump too little, too late?
Throughout Trump’s turbulent presidency, Twitter has maintained they will take a forgiving view of world leaders’ Tweets as they are of public interest. It was only after widespread criticism that they started tagging his inflammatory Tweets as being disputed or unsubstantiated.
It’s true that such drastic action by social media against a sitting President is unprecedented. However, there has never been a President who weaponised social media in the way Trump did. His social media use, prolific and attention-seeking, reached millions and spread messages of hate and ignorance. In fact, it was a major reason he successfully ran for office in 2016. After all, he ran or considered running four times prior to this. Moreover, though his qualifications for leadership are few, he has a talent for sowing discord and disunity, through social media especially. Since opening his account in 2009, he has sent almost 47k original Tweets, most of which were after 2013. From Jan 1 – 6, he sent 142 Tweets, which had 12,607,046,742 potential impacts according to Tweetbinder’s Twitter analytics tool. That’s a lot of potential for misinformation spread.
In Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s thread, in which he commented on the ban, he stated that “having to take these actions fragment the public conversation”. This was referring, of course, to the use of other right platforms—the most prominent being Parler, which was recently removed from Apple’s app store. These platforms are an echo chamber for radical opinions, and a ban from Twitter only makes far-right members more likely to promote their ignorance there: this much is true. It is also true that away from the public eye, these radical claims will go undisputed and unrefuted. Perhaps their members may be further radicalised as a result. However, although Dorsey considers Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump to set a “dangerous” precedent, the hate speech that took place on Twitter’s mainstream social media platform allowed Trump and others to spread their ideas to a wider audience, and to radicalise those who may not otherwise have been exposed.
Trump and other Conservatives have frequently accused social media of stifling right wing voices, and this may be one reason Twitter took so long to act. However, The Economist investigated these claims in 2018 and found “no evidence that ideology influences Google news results”. What’s more, Media Matters studied interactions on political Facebook pages and concluded that right-wing groups have a “bigger presence on Facebook”, though engagement between right and left leaning pages were approximately identical. Twitter’s ban of Trump was not, therefore, playing into a narrative of right-wing suppression; instead, removing his engagement and radicalisation was a step towards preserving democracy.
Trump frequently contravened Twitter’s policy. In fact, Twitter and Facebook have both received criticism for years that they allowed Trump to post content that broke their rules. The argument that larger companies should not be in the position of suppressing free speech does not apply when the free speech in question promotes violence. We may all have the right to speak; we do not all have the right to be heard. Those who encourage and perpetuate hatred and violence should not be allowed a public platform such as this. If Twitter had taken firmer action against the President, it is likely 2021 would have looked very different, and America would not be in the throes of a political crisis.
Jack Dorsey’s Twitter thread, throwing some morsels of accountability into an essay of deflection, attempts to excuse Twitter’s belated action. However, with only a few days left of Trump’s presidency, and after the devastating attack on the Capitol and democracy, they were acting not for the good of the public (had that been the case they would have acted long before now), but for the good of themselves.
It cannot be denied that Twitter should not have been required to act. Higher bodies should have investigated and imprisoned Trump long before now, and it should not be independent, private companies’ job to censor. Nevertheless, Trump’s social media platform has gained him the support that enables him to retain power, despite impeachment and scandal after scandal. To ban him now, after the damage has been done, amounts to inaction; his voice has already been heard, and too many people have listened.
Image courtesy of Brett Jordan.