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SOCIAL MEDIA CENSORSHIP

09.10.21

“Covfefe” will forever remain as Donald Trump’s best contribution on social media – the memes that followed were the gift that kept on giving. Even US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel conceded “what makes me saddest is that I know I’ll never write anything funnier than #covfefe”. 


But whilst we laughed and joked at this innocuous typo, Trump’s tweets were becoming increasingly dangerous.

On 6th January this year, riots took place at the U.S. Capitol, jeopardising the peaceful transition of presidential power and resulting in the deaths of five people – including Capitol Police offer, Brian Sicknick. Trump’s tweets throughout the day did nothing to calm the mob, nor did his speech to supporters at his Washington DC rally.


Two days later, Twitter took the unprecedented decision to permanently ban Donald Trump from their platform, stating:


“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action. 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. We will continue to be transparent around our policies and their enforcement.”


Two tweets were singled out for assessment. On 8th January 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!!!”


Shortly thereafter, Trump added:


“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”


Twitter concluded:


“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.”


For many it seemed like the right decision and obvious solution, but as Jack Dorsey – founder and chief executive of Twitter – stated, it sets a dangerous precedent. Taking to his own platform, Dorsey explained:


“I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.


“That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.


“Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”


In an article for The Telegraph, Fraser Myles voiced his concerns:


“Big tech has crossed the Rubicon. Facebook has suspended the sitting president of the United States, and Twitter has banned him permanently.


“You don't have to like Donald Trump to find this terrifying. You can be appalled by his campaign of lies against the result of a free and fair election. And you can be horrified by the storming of the Capitol carried out in his name. But you should be alarmed by the precedent this sets. If the tech monopolies can deny a platform to the leader of the free world, then they can deny a voice to anyone.”


Myles continues:


“Twitter's reasoning for the ban sets the tone for more censorship to come. It cites two tweets which broke its rules… The tweets are in the style we've come to expect from Trump. Neither incites violence directly, but in Twitter's view, they present a ‘risk’ of incitement, because it fears they might be interpreted as an incitement to violence…


“There is simply no end to what could be censored following this chilling logic. It used to be the Trumpist QAnon conspiracy theorists who searched for hidden messages in Trump's every utterance - now Twitter has turned this approach into its official policy.”


The actions of Twitter and Facebook (who suspended Trump’s accounts on their platforms for two years), raised questions around free speech and whether such censorship constituted a violation of Trump’s First Amendment rights. 


Tom Spiggle’s article for Forbes explored the legality of the situation:


“The most prominent free speech protections come from the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. But what many people seem to forget is that these protections only protect individuals from federal and state action (the Fourteenth Amendment applies the First Amendment to the states).


“Therefore, as a general rule, free speech protections do not protect individuals from censorship by a private entity, whether it’s from a church, employer or social media company. This gives companies like Twitter and Facebook the right to create their own rules that can restrict the speech of its users in almost any way it sees fit.”


The piece continues:


“But while this is the law, this isn’t always what companies do. For example, for much of President Trump’s term, he has violated both Twitter and Facebook policies in ways that should have resulted in account suspensions or bans. Yet, until very recently, none of those things happened.


“Why? Well, the simple answer is that Trump is the President of the United States. The more complicated answer probably adds other considerations, such as politics, public perception and company profitability.


“The bottom line is that President Trump’s First Amendment rights were not violated. When Facebook and Twitter suspended and banned his accounts, it was an instance of private, not government action.”


It makes sense. Trump WAS the President of the United States. The moment Joe Biden won the election, Trump expressed bitterness and resentment; indicating more than once that he did not intend to go quietly. Should he continue to benefit from a free platform to say whatever he wants to more than 88 million followers? Not if what he has to say incites violence and undermines democracy. And not when that platform is a private company with the right to be prescriptive about what they will and will not tolerate. But we all know the issue is more complicated than that.

Part of the problem lies with how dominant tech companies have become in recent decades, as outlined by the closing statement of Myles’ article in The Telegraph:


“The fact is that social media have become the 21st century's public square. To be denied a voice on these platforms is to be a digital unperson. When the mega-corporations of Silicon Valley pick and choose which voices can be heard, they are no longer neutral platforms. Rather, they are exercising an extraordinary power over our democracy. Their decisions are opaque and unaccountable, and yet are extraordinarily consequential.”


According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, 24% of the participants surveyed in the UK use Facebook for news, with 14% using Twitter. That said, the report states:


“Trust in the news has fallen over 20 percentage points since 2015. Even the most trusted brands like the BBC are seen by many as pushing or suppressing agendas – especially over polarising issues like Brexit.”


What needs to be remembered, however, is that social media messages from Trump did not constitute “the news”. His words may be newsworthy - journalists around the globe will have committed more words to “covfefe” than they’d ever care to admit – and his tweets may have been central to the narrative of Trump’s tumultuous presidency, but they were just that: tweets. They were the biased and unfiltered views of an individual who also happened to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world.  Tweets aren’t subject to any of the editorial standards held by broadcast and print media – nor the ramifications for falsifying information - and yet many users still took content at face value.


It was this very issue that led Twitter to set out its public interest policy in June 2019. In a statement, the Twitter Safety team explained:


“Serving the public conversation includes providing the ability for anyone to talk about what matters to them; this can be especially important when engaging with government officials and political figures. By nature of their positions these leaders have outsized influence and sometimes say things that could be considered controversial or invite debate and discussion. A critical function of our service is providing a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable.


“With this in mind, there are certain cases where it may be in the public’s interest to have access to certain Tweets, even if they would otherwise be in violation of our rules. On the rare occasions when this happens, we'll place a notice – a screen you have to click or tap through before you see the Tweet – to provide additional context and clarity. We’ll also take steps to make sure the Tweet is not algorithmically elevated on our service, to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these Tweets”


Such a notice was applied to Trump’s infamous “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet from May 2020 – in which he warned those protesting in Minneapolis against the murder of George Floyd that he would send the military to intervene if there was “any difficulty”. Twitter’s notice stated:


“This tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible.”


Had these notices sufficed then Trump wouldn’t be banned from the platform today. His persistence in breaching the rules – on and off social media – is what led to his so-called censorship. In the end, Twitter couldn’t change Trump’s message, but they could change how he delivered it.