Social media abuse from political figures isn’t just a Trump problem, and banning him won’t solve it.
Today would have been President Trump’s last day with the special privileges Facebook and Twitter grant to world leaders, which exempt their speech from many of the platforms’ rules. But Trump managed to violate even those platforms’ most permissive policies with posts that encouraged violence at the United States Capitol, getting him kicked off them (and several others) entirely. At least for now, anyway; Facebook and Twitter can, as they always have, change the rules they made up.
Trump’s ban came after years of the social media giants allowing him to push their limits, creating and adjusting their rules about world leaders to avoid having to take action against him — and to avoid positioning themselves as the arbiters of acceptable political speech. Citing the public interest and newsworthiness of almost anything world leaders had to say, Facebook and Twitter allowed them to break some of their rules. But not, as Trump discovered, all of them.
Trump’s ban may have been in accordance with the platforms’ established policies, but deplatforming a world leader — especially this world leader — was still an extraordinary step. Twitter told Recode that Trump is the first head of state to be permanently suspended since the company’s 2019 world leaders policy update. Trump’s Twitter account is gone, along with all of his tweets. Facebook’s ban will definitely last until January 20 and is “indefinite” after that. His page is currently in a state of limbo: still up for all to see, but he’s not allowed to post anything on it.
Now that Facebook and Twitter have shown that they will set and enforce limits for the most powerful person in the world, it raises questions about how the companies will apply or change their policies for world leaders in the future, the relative harm or good their services have caused for democracy, and who they’ll deplatform next.
“I do agree with the decision [to ban Trump],” Deborah Brown, a senior researcher and digital rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, told Recode. “I don’t necessarily agree with how we got there.”
Trump said whatever he wanted on social media with codified impunity until the Trump problem became too big to ignore
Before Trump, social media platforms didn’t see the need for defined policies or special rules for world leaders. Adam Sharp, Twitter’s founding head of news, government, and elections from 2010 until the end of 2016, told Recode that he often had to convince political figures to use the platform, ideally in a personal or authentic way that would make their constituents feel more connected to them.
Trump would need no such convincing. He already used social media — especially Twitter — the way a lot of people did: to blast out his notions and whims, however unsavory, to whoever was willing to read them. Trump wasn’t dignified, he wasn’t diplomatic, and he saw no need to change his behavior when he ran for and then became president. But the platforms couldn’t have expected what would come next.
“I think there was an expectation that abuse would not be originating from these individuals,” Sharp said. “I can’t really fault anyone, five years ago, for not thinking, ‘Do we need a policy for what happens if the president of the United States promotes an insurrection against the United States?’”
After Trump was elected, Facebook and Twitter came out with their policies on posts that they saw as “newsworthy” or of “public interest” — which was pretty much anything the president of the United States (or other world leaders) said on their platforms. This allowed him to threaten nuclear war with North Korea and call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
Twitter became more restrictive in the latter half of Trump’s presidency, placing notices on tweets from political figures that broke its rules, as well as limiting their spread. In October 2019, Twitter again laid out its policies regarding world leaders, including what content was still subject to their terms of service — that is, the exemptions to the world leader exemptions. Here, Twitter noted that its policies may change depending on the “increasingly complex and polarized political culture.” The company also noted that “context matters” when it came to its decisions about threats of violence.
By 2020, both platforms were starting to push back on Trump as the election neared and the coronavirus pandemic raged. When Trump played up the possibility of fraud in voting by mail and played down the severity of the coronavirus, both platforms finally acted: Twitter appended fact-checks to misinformation about mail-in voting, and Facebook took down Trump’s inaccurate post that children were immune to the coronavirus, for example. The platforms increasingly cracked down on other political figures’ posts, too. Inaccurate posts about the coronavirus from Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro were pulled last March.
But the platforms avoided taking much — or any — action on Trump’s posts that promoted violence. In June, he posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts!” in response to the George Floyd protests. Twitter kept the tweet up but placed a notice on it, while Facebook did nothing. CEO Mark Zuckerberg would later say that while he understood the desire to remove some politicians’ content, he still believed it was better that the public know what their leaders are saying.
Then Trump lost the election, only to insist, frequently and aggressively, that he won it and encourage his supporters to act before his win was “stolen” from him. Facebook and Twitter said the world leader exemption would no longer apply to Trump once he left office, and likely counted down the days until their Trump problem solved itself. But Trump still managed to force the hands of platforms that dragged their feet to punish him.
“This is not a change in policy — it’s a response to a specific situation based on risk,” Facebook told Recode of Trump’s ban. “We have established policies for dealing with praise of violence on the platform. They apply to all users around the world, including politicians.”
“We made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules and cannot use Twitter to incite violence,” Twitter told Recode. “We will continue to be transparent around our policies, how they evolve, how they are enforced.”
Sharp has for years defended Twitter’s world leader policy, believing that it’s better for the world to see what its leaders have to say than for a private company to take on the job of sanitizing their timelines.
“If the emperor doesn’t have clothes, there should be a bright, burning-hot spotlight on it,” Sharp said.
After the election, though, Sharp saw less of a case that Trump’s tweets informed his electorate, as the electorate had now made the informed decision to remove Trump from power. And Sharp now believes the same world leader status that made Trump exempt from many of Twitter’s rules also made his posts about the insurrection so uniquely destructive — and, therefore, finally actionable.
During and after the Capitol riots, Trump continued to push his narrative that the election was stolen from him and refused to condemn his supporters’ actions, and Facebook and Twitter responded by banning him temporarily, and then indefinitely. After all the words that Trump put on Twitter and Facebook, his ban came down to what was between the lines. His posts, on their face, were actually fairly tame by Trump standards. But the context around them — as well as the possibility that he would use their platforms to incite more violence — was what Twitter and Facebook took into account when making their decision to deplatform Trump.
Twitter and Facebook made the rules and finally enforced them. What happens next?
Trump’s social media exile was applauded by many, but some were also concerned that it could pave the way for deplatforming other world leaders or political speech — and that these decisions would be made by a few private companies with a demonstrably incredible amount of control and influence.
If Trump can get banned from Twitter and Facebook, it stands to reason that any world leader can be, too. But it’s not yet clear if the platforms will change their policies or how aggressively they will enforce them now. Two world leaders that are widely seen as likely to be banned — or who some think should be the next to be banned — are Bolsonaro and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Bolsonaro, who has modeled his presidency on Trump’s and has run afoul of Twitter’s and Facebook’s rules, seems to be preparing for the possibility. After Trump was banned, Bolsonaro encouraged his Twitter and Facebook followers to follow him on Telegram. Khamenei, whose unverified accounts post Holocaust denials and call for the destruction of Israel, is frequently held up as an example of Twitter’s and Facebook’s double standards when they regulate Trump’s speech. Khamenei remains on the platforms — which his own people don’t have access to, as Twitter and Facebook are banned in Iran — but Twitter recently removed one of his tweets promoting coronavirus misinformation, and according to Khamenei, Facebook removed the Arabic-language version of his page (he’s since made a new one).
Several world leaders have meanwhile criticized social media companies’ banning of Trump. Germany’s Angela Merkel called it “problematic” to freedom of opinion, while Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has called the results of his own election defeats into question, said he didn’t agree with the idea of private companies punishing speech.
“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,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane said in a statement. “It is our hope that these companies will apply their rules transparently to everyone.”
Civil and digital rights advocates hope that the platforms will use this as an opportunity to examine how they police political speech and the significant role their services play in the world, where they’ve been weaponized against certain groups, platformed several countries’ disinformation campaigns, and become a recruitment tool for terrorists. When Facebook and Twitter did act to stop some of these abuses of their platforms, they often came too late and after ignoring plenty of warning.
“From my perspective, this raises larger questions around how platforms deal with the speech of politicians,” said Brown of Human Rights Watch. “This shows the need to rethink these policies, to look at whether giving politicians so much free rein to violate policies is actually contributing to harm, and looking at the dynamics in the different countries or people using their platforms.”
Brown said she hoped the platforms would do this proactively, rather than reactively. And she hopes that lesser–known instances of social media abuse by political figures are addressed along with the high-profile ones.
Before banning Trump, Twitter and Facebook announced initiatives that acknowledged their platforms’ significant role in the world and the importance of their moderation decisions. Facebook’s independent oversight board, two years in the making, is now up and running and accepting appeals of Facebook’s content moderation decisions from users. (Who knows? Maybe Trump will submit one.) Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, in a long thread about Trump’s ban, which he called a “failure … to promote healthy conversation,” pointed to Twitter’s effort called “bluesky” to develop some kind of “standard” for internet conversation that Twitter would follow but which would also “take many years to develop.”
In an ideal world, Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t be left to make these decisions at all. Democratically elected world leaders wouldn’t spend the aftermath of their election losses fomenting dissent among their supporters and tacitly approving their violent uprisings, and they wouldn’t be enabled by the people and institutions that are supposed to keep them in check.
“The promise that I and others believed in, of Twitter as a tool for world leaders to be closer to their electorates, to have a more direct and tangible relationship with their constituents than ever before — no one has proven that promise more effectively than Donald Trump,” Sharp told Recode. “And no one has perverted it to do more harm than Donald Trump.”
Facebook and Twitter are in an impossible situation, but it’s one they created for themselves. And they also get to decide what comes next.
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