Before surprisingly winning the 2016 U.S. presidential election, then Republican candidate Donald Trump used social media platforms, particularly Twitter, to falsely assert that Barack Obama, the United States’ first Black president, was not born in the U.S. Throughout his divisive four-year presidency, President Trump used Twitter, his preferred political megaphone, to denigrate political opponents at home, agitate other nations, announce important policy decisions, spread divisive misinformation, and amplify the hate and dangerous conspiracy theories spread on social media platforms by followers of QAnon and other violent extremist movements.
And, after losing the November 2020 presidential election to President-elect Joe Biden, Trump used Twitter to spread violence-inciting misinformation and baseless conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud.
Meanwhile Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies resisted civil rights defenders’ numerous calls to moderate Trump’s violence-inciting social media postings and stop his repeated violations of their policies on hate speech and incitement. Even after flagging more than 470 problematic tweets by @realDonaldTrump, the outgoing president’s personal account, over the years, according to Factba.se, Twitter steadfastly resisted calls by civil rights activists to censor Trump.
Wednesday’s unprecedented storming of the U.S. Capitol, the heart of American democracy, by pro-Trump white nationalists, far-right extremists, white supremacists, QAnon adherents, and ordinary Americans, changed everything.
Permanent Twitter ban
On Friday, Twitter permanently suspended the outgoing president’s notorious @realDonaldTrump account. The company cited “the risk of further incitement of violence” in the days leading to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for the unprecedented decision.
In blog post, the company added:
Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.
Before it’s demise, Trump’s hate-mongering @realDonaldTrump handle, launched in May 2009 by the then New York real estate tycoon, had unleashed more than 57,000 tweets.
Twitter’s unprecedented censor of the 45th President of the United States came a day after Facebook had revoked the outgoing president’s ability to post to his Facebook and Instagram accounts “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.” In a statement, Facebook said “the risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service” in the period leading to Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 were “simply too great”.
Pro-Trump “insurrectionists” and “domestic terrorists”
Twitter permanently banned Trump nearly more than 48 hours after the Jan. 6, 2021, “unprecedented assault” on the United States Capitol by an agitated mon of “violent extremists” loyal to the outgoing U.S president. The pro-Trump mob comprised ordinary Republican party supporters, right-wing extremists, white nationalists, white supremacists, and followers of QAnon, a notorious far-right conspiracy movement whose members believe that Trump is waging an epic war against a network of child-eating, Satan-worshiping elites aligned with Hollywood, the business world and U.S. political opposition.
The Trumpist mob engaged in a futile, unconstitutional and violent bid to scuttle the U.S. Congress’ inevitable certification of President-elect Biden’s victory over Trump during the 2020 presidential election. According the New York Times, its siege it had “no parallel in modern American history, with insurgents acting in the president’s name vandalizing [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, smashing windows, looting art and briefly taking control of the Senate chamber, where they took turns posing for photographs with fists up on the dais where [Vice President Mike] Pence had just been presiding.”
The siege desecrated of the heart of American government. It directly caused five fatalities.
Ashli Bobbitt was fatally shot by police after she and other rioters had smashed the glass of the doors of the Speaker’s Lobby and, ignoring police orders to retreat, forced their way in. She was a 35-year-old military veteran and QAnon adherent.
Three people whose deaths have been labeled “medical emergencies” by authorities, lost their lives during the siege.
The fifth, Brian D. Sicknick, a United States Capitol Police (USCP) officer, lost his life on Jan. 7, after getting “injured while physically engaging with protesters,” according to a police statement. A pro-Trump thug reportedly attacked him with a fire extinguisher.
Speaking in Delaware on Thursday, mere hours after Vice President Mike Pence and Congress had defied Trump and certified his election, President-elect Biden condemned the pro-Trump rioters’ “unprecedented assault” on American democracy. Biden said:
They weren’t protesters – don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists. It’s that basic. It’s that simple.
By disrupting Congress’s ongoing executing of the American tradition of the “peaceful transfer of power” ahead of his inevitable inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden said, the pro-Trump “domestic terrorists” had turned Jan. 6, 2021, into “one of the darkest days in the history of our nation”.
“An infantile and unpatriotic president”
In a personal statement posted to Twitter on Jan. 7, former first lady Michelle Obama blamed “an infantile and unpatriotic president who can’t handle the truth of his own failures” for the deadly violence of Jan. 6. She also highlighted law enforcement agencies’ enabling of right-wing extremism and white supremacist violence, and their brutal response to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in recent years. She said:
Like all of you, I watched as a gang – organized, violent, and mad they’d lost an election – laid siege to the United States Capitol. They set up gallows. They proudly waved the traitorous flag of the Confederacy through the halls. They desecrated the center of American government. And once authorities finally gained control of the situation, these rioters and gang members were led out of the building not in handcuffs, but free to carry on with their days. The day was a fulfillment of the wishes of an infantile and unpatriotic president who can’t handle the truth of his own failures. And the wreckage lays at the feet of a party and media apparatus that gleefully cheered him on, knowing full well the possibility of consequences like these.
The editorial board of the The Wall Street Journal, a leading Republican establishment-loving publication, accused Trump of supporting “an assault on the constitutional process of transferring power after an election”. Congratulating President-elect Biden, “who will be inaugurated as the Constitution stipulates at noon on Jan. 20,” the publication further characterized the Trump-supported assault on the U.S. Capital as follows:
It was also an assault on the legislature from an executive sworn to uphold the laws of the United States. This goes beyond merely refusing to concede defeat. In our view it crosses a constitutional line that Mr Trump hasn’t previously crossed. It is impeachable.
For years human rights campaigners and digital rights activists have warned Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms hosting Trump and other to root out hate speech, disinformation, extremism, and conspiracy theories from their platforms.
Last summer, Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of prominent civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Color of Change, the Anti-Defamation League, Common Sense, Sleeping Giants and Free Press, executed a campaign urging advertisers to boycott Facebook. More than 1,200 businesses nonprofits and consumers answered the call.
In September, more than 50 Hollywood celebrities and social media influencers, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Kim Kardashian West, Rosario Dawson, Naomi Campbell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Ruffalo, and Jamie Foxx supported a 24-hour Instagram “freeze” campaign protesting the failure by Facebook, the application’s owner, to tackle the proliferation of hateful content and misinformation on its platforms. The protest, organized by the Stop Hate for Profit coalition, sought to pressure Facebook to “take action to address hate, extremism and disinformation on its platforms.”
Last year, Facebook banned groups, pages and Instagram accounts openly identifying with QAnon. In a blog post, the company said the ban was part of “measures designed to disrupt the ability of QAnon and Militarized Social Movements to operate and organize on our platform.”
In May 2020, Twitter introduced experimental conversation controls that limited the circulation of content associated with QAnon as part of the platform’s “strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm.” The action limited 150,000 QAnon accounts.
Still, the platforms continued to host Trump and amply his hate and disinformation on their platforms.
As Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” told USA Today:
No individual on the Earth, including no other world leader, has so frequently used social media to spread disinformation, incite violence, and undermine the democratic processes of the United States.
As Wednesday’s unprecedented assault on the U.S. Capitol persisted, Trump released a video statement, posted to Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, in which he made violence-inciting accusations that, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican, inspired “domestic terrorists” but “cannot be proven”. He told followers that the the 2020 presidential election, which he massively lost, “was stolen from us.” Trump also told his agitated followers to “go home” now but “remember this day forever!” Then he told the rioters: “We love you,” and “You’re very special.”
Still, social media platforms only introduced short-terms measures against Trump, such as banning the misleading video and other inflammatory social media posts.
Facebook removed that now-notorious video Trump released as the assault on the U.S. Capitol raged. Then the social media company suspended Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts until at least Inauguration Day on Jan. 20th. In a statement, Facebook said:
We believe the risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great, so we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.
Meanwhile human rights defenders continued to pressure social media platforms to do more.
In her Jan. 7 personal statement, Obama said:
I hurt for our country. And I wish I had all the solutions to make things better. I wish I had the confidence that people who know better will act like it for more than a news cycle or two. All I know is that now is a time for true patriotism. Now is the time for those who voted for this president to see the reality of what they’ve supported—and publicly and forcefully rebuke him and the actions of that mob. Now is the time for Silicon Valley companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior—and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their platforms and putting in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation’s leaders to fuel insurrection. And if we have any hope of improving this nation, now is the time for swift and serious consequences for the failure of leadership that led to yesterday’s shame.
On Jan. 8 the Stop Hate for Profit coalition called on Twitter, Facebook, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and other social media platforms to “#BanTrumpSaveDemocracy by permanently removing Donald Trump from their platforms“. Access to social media services, the the coalition argued, was “a privilege” that Trump “clearly has forfeited based on an indisputable pattern of behavior that preceded his calls to violence this week.”
Twitter’s long overdue ban on Trump came on later on Jan. 8. Two specific tweets posted by the outgoing president on Jan. 8, triggered the ban. 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!!!
And then Trump tweeted:
To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.
Twitter explained how the two tweets influenced its ban on Trump:
Due to the ongoing tensions in the United States, and an uptick in the global conversation in regards to the people who violently stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behavior from this account in recent weeks. After assessing the language in these Tweets against our Glorification of Violence policy, we have determined that these Tweets are in violation of the Glorification of Violence Policy and the user @realDonaldTrump should be immediately permanently suspended from the service.
Twitter’s Glorification of Violence policy prohibits the glorification of violence against “an individual or a group of people,” and the glorification of “violent acts” that “could inspire others to take part in similar acts of violence.” In its assessment, Twitter considered that Trump’s ban-triggering tweets “could inspire others to replicate violent acts”. The company also determined that Trump’s inciting tweets “were highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.”
According to Twitter, Trump’s public statement stating that he would not attend President-elect Biden’s inauguration was “being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation” that the 2020 presidential election was “not legitimate”.
Trump’s second Tweet, Twitter explained, could encourage Trump’s aggrieved supporters who may be inclined to commit vengeful violent acts to regard the Inauguration even as a “safe” target due to the outgoing president’s absence.
- The use of the words “American Patriots” to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.
- The use of the words “American Patriots” to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.
- The mention of his supporters having a “GIANT VOICE long into the future” and that “They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an “orderly transition” and instead that he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election.
- Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.
Twitter added that while, while Trump’s two inciting Tweets were “likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021,” the company’s assessment had also found “multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so.”
“A day late and a dollar short”
For Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, an unapologetic Silicon Valley critic, Twitter’s ban on Trump is “an overdue step” in the right direction.
Jessica J. González, the Co-CEO of Free Press and Co-founder of Change the Terms, welcomed Twitter’s banning of Trump as “a victory for racial-justice advocates who have long condemned his continued abuse of the platform,” adding:
From the launch of his presidential campaign when he defamed Mexicans as rapists, criminals and drug dealers, to the desperate last gasps of his presidency as he has egged on white supremacists to commit violence and insurrection, Trump had used his Twitter account to incite violence, lie about the election outcome, encourage racists and spread conspiracy theories. He did not deserve a platform on Twitter, or on any other social or traditional media.
Today’s news, while a day late and a dollar short, is welcome. I urge other social-media companies to follow suit immediately.
Still, it’s too early to associate Twitter’s ban on Trump with “victory” in the ongoing struggle against the proliferation of violence-inducing hate speech, disinformation, conspiracy theories on social media platforms. After all, it took an “attempted coup” on the U.S. Capitol and five deaths for social media companies to act against Donald Trump.
By censoring Donald Trump, a sitting president of the world’s most powerful country, both Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed where real power is located in this age of the Internet and social media.
Reacting to the bans, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a “leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world,” sounded warnings about allowing powerful tech and social media companies to wield so much power.
Kate Ruane, a senior legislative lawyer for the ACLU, wrote in a statement:
For months, President Trump has been using social media platforms to seed doubt about the results of the election and to undermined the will of voters. We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier. President Trump can turn to his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public, but others – like the many Black, Brown and LGBTQ activists who have been censored by social media companies – will not have the luxury. It is our hope that these companies will apply their rules transparently to everyone.
Responding to social media companies’ initial blocking of Trump a day after the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, Corynne McSherry the EFF’s legal director specializing in intellectual property, open access, and free speech issues, wrote in a statement:
The decisions by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others to suspend and/or block President Trump’s communications via their platforms is a simple exercise of their rights, under the First Amendment and Section 230, to curate their sites. We support those rights. Nevertheless, we are always concerned when platforms take on the role of censors, which is why we continue to call on them to apply a human rights framework to those decisions. We also note that those same platforms have chosen, for years, to privilege some speakers – particularly governmental officials – over others, not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well. A platform should not apply one set of rules to most of its users, and then apply a more permissive set of rules to politicians and world leaders who are already immensely powerful. Instead, they should be precisely as judicious about removing the content of ordinary users as they have been to date regarding heads of state. Going forward, we call once again on the platforms to be more transparent and consistent in how they apply their rules – and we call on policymakers to find ways to foster competition so that users have numerous editorial options and policies from which to choose.
While Trump will no longer be able to use the @realDonaldTrump handle for “further incitement of violence” before the inauguration President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, he remains determined to exploit the power of the Internet and social media to further divide people and spread misinformation. After the Twitter ban, he told his supporters he’d soon do something related to “building out our own platform in the near future. We will not be SILENCED!”
During Wednesday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol, some pro-Trump terrorists planned to kidnap lawmakers. Others wanted to hang Vice President Pence for betraying Trump. They chanted, “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!”
On Saturday, a day after the Twitter ban, the phrase “Hang Mike Pence” was trending on Twitter, before the company took it down.