As a mob of right-wing extremists occupied the US Capitol building on Tuesday, President Trump posted a short video message to his loyal supporters on social media: “We had an election that was stolen from us,” he said, repeating a lie he has promoted for months. “Go home. We love you; you’re very special,” he said. “I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.”
Initially, Twitter only put limits on the video, but it later removed the tweet entirely, along with a subsequent message that appeared to justify the actions of the mob because they are “great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.” Twitter also announced that the president’s account would remain locked for at least 12 hours.
The decision to delete the video put Twitter in line with Facebook and YouTube, which had both opted earlier in the day to remove it for violating their rules. Shortly before Twitter’s decision was announced, “Delete his account” became a trending topic on the platform.
Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, posted publicly that his company’s decision was made in the context of an “emergency situation,” adding that “we are taking appropriate emergency measures. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.” He followed up later with an official statement, explaining that the platform is actively removing all content in “praise and support of the storming of the US Capitol,” and escalating emergency measures to stem the creation and reach of posts that might violate its community policies.
“It’s clear that enough is enough”
Twitter’s latest move limits the president’s ability to tweet until he formally deletes three tweets that the company deems dangerous. It is an escalation of its running conflict with the president throughout 2020 as he spread conspiracy theories about the election and covid-19.
But the decision does not fully suspend the president’s account, or block him permanently from the platform. As a world leader, Trump has benefited from policies that provide exceptions to normal enforcement measures owing to the inherent newsworthiness of his messages or the public interest in them. But experts—including current and former Twitter insiders—say that the events at the Capitol should be more than enough evidence to demonstrate why labels and individual takedowns no longer go far enough.
Laura Gómez, a former Twitter employee who has repeatedly called for CEO Jack Dorsey to suspend Trump’s account (and who recently warned that the president was attempting a coup using the site), says that simply taking the video down is “like putting a Band-Aid on an arm that’s been blown off.”
Meanwhile, Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has advised Twitter on addressing hate speech and harassment since 2009, publicly urged Twitter to ban Trump from the platform for good.
“In my conversations with folks at Twitter, it’s clear that they should have seen this coming all along,” Citron says. “I’ve been communicating that. But now it’s clear that enough is enough.”
If Trump’s tweets are protected on Twitter by a policy that draws its moral framework from protecting the public interest, she says, then simply applying that policy correctly would lead the company to the same conclusion.
Twitter has largely viewed Trump’s tweets in isolation, Citron says, taking each potentially rule-breaking tweet as it comes. But instead, Twitter’s policy should be applied in a way that takes his behavior on and off of Twitter as a whole, she adds.
“What he says in the debate is compounded with what he tweets to what he says to the crowd,” she says. “He incited violence. He did it through a course of weeks.”
“He’s causing death and destruction with his lies,” says Citron. “The public’s interest is to take him off.”
Gómez, who was Twitter’s head of localization, says she first brought her concerns that politicians could misuse the platform in 2010, when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez joined the site: “I asked everybody, ‘Should we have policies and … different terms for world leaders or dictators that are using the platform to protect their citizens or their political opponents?’”
Twitter declined to create a separate set of policies for politicians.
So in 2017, she watched with increasing alarm at how Trump was violating the site’s rules.
Nothing was done, nor did Dorsey seem amenable to her suggestions during an in-person conversation. “I asked him, ‘How do you sleep at night?’” she says. His response, she recalls, was to reply: “Quite well.”
“A ripple effect”
Gómez stresses that her concern was not about her own politics or views on Trump, but rather about Twitter’s adherence to its own terms of service. The question, she says, is whether this would be acceptable from “any other Twitter user” or even “any other Twitter ‘leader.’”
Evidence suggests short-term bans or limits on individual pieces of content do not succeed in preventing information from spreading. Twitter’s previous efforts to flag Trump’s disputed tweets have in fact has drawn more attention to them: one such tweet still received nearly half a million likes and retweets despite the limits placed on it. Meanwhile, data show that Twitter’s attempts to reduce the spread of a story about Hunter Biden actually led to more engagement, not less.
The same is true of other platforms, too. Despite Facebook’s ban on Trump’s message to the mob storming Congress, the video continued to circulate when other users and media outlets effectively copied and rebroadcast it.
Gómez says there is now even more evidence to support suspending the president, and that failing to do so will lead to a “ripple effect” if he continues to tweet incendiary content. Just as his video today did, further tweets could “spur more protests in other cities.”
Already, the Associated Press reports that there were protests, some armed, in 15 state houses around the country.
—Additional reporting from Karen Hao and Tate Ryan-Mosley
Update January 6, 2021, 10:50pm ET: Facebook and Instagram’s subsequent 24-hour feature blocks to Trump’s account were added to the story.