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Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has weaponised social media to spread fear, incite violence and sow disinformation without penalty. As he reimagined how a head of state could engage with an electorate, bypassing communications flacks and disregarding platforms’ content rules, tech executives regularly looked the other way.
But this week — one of his last in office — Trump’s reign of impunity suddenly came to an end. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Twitch and Shopify all barred him from using their services, at least temporarily. It’s unclear how long he’ll remain offline; his access to most of the platforms is restricted indefinitely. He has returned to Twitter following an unprecedented 12-hour suspension to finally concede defeat, but if he breaks the rules again, Twitter warned, he’ll be gone for good.
On Wednesday, the day of President-elect Joe Biden’s congressional confirmation, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, violently clashing with police and forcing their way inside. Radicalised into believing their mad king’s false and tireless claim that the election was “stolen” from him, the mob smashed windows, scaled walls, ransacked legislators’ offices, set up gallows and waved Confederate flags while hunting for members of Congress, who sheltered in place. Five people died, including a law enforcement officer who was reportedly bludgeoned in the head with a fire extinguisher.
Trump posted a video to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube amid the chaos in which he urged peace while simultaneously repeating his conspiracy theory of electoral fraud.
“Go home, we love you, you’re very special,” he told the rioters, later adding: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
Inside Silicon Valley, Trump’s sanction of violence was the final straw.
“The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post Thursday morning, upon announcing an indefinite block on Trump’s account.
Twitch, the online video streaming platform which also hit Trump with an indefinite suspension, issued a statement using the same term to describe the violence: “shocking.”
But the desecration of the Capitol was hardly shocking to anyone who has paid attention to Trump’s reelection playbook. It was the culmination of hate, polarisation and delusion that he has openly fomented on social media for years — and to an extraordinary degree since his loss in November — with minimal moderation.
For months online, the president’s stream of unfounded and debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud and his calls to “stop the steal” have seeded outrage in his army of “patriots” across the country, mobilizing them in a deeply misguided quest for justice. Wednesday’s violence was the boiling point, and it was a long time coming.
For social media CEOs to act surprised is risibly disingenuous. Insurrectionists had openlyplotted online to occupy the Capitol in Trump’s honour, without interference from the platforms they used. Facebook has since introduced policies to remove posts encouraging further turmoil; Reddit on Friday banned r/donaldtrump, an unofficial pro-Trump subreddit, for inciting violence.
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
These reactive steps, while positive, are too little, too late. Extremism experts have long warned that the falsehoods and fearmongering propaganda Trump freely spews on his social channels pose real-world dangers. They rang alarm bells last spring when he used Twitter and Facebook to condone the shooting of racial justice protesters. Neither platform took action against Trump’s account at the time or even removed the offending message despitepleas from their own employees to do so; Twitter simply appended a label noting that it was “glorifying violence.”
Such labels have provoked Trump’s ire in the past, on the rare occasions in which social media companies have moderated his content. He has raged online against Big Tech’s supposed anti-conservative bias, launched scathing ads to fundraise off his imagined battle of “liberal Silicon Valley versus America,” and signed an executive order to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants online intermediaries special legal protections.
For years, these tantrums seemed to be an effective strategy to sustain his online presence, despite his repeated violations of tech giants’ policies. Their removals and fact-checks of even his most egregious posts have been tepid to nonexistent — until now.
To be sure, deplatforming a sitting president sets a sobering precedent with serious implications for free speech. By Thursday, though, as Americans grappled with the reality of the Capitol assault — and Trump’s role in instigating the bloodshed from behind a screen, in a flailing effort to hold onto power — a bipartisan chorus of voices was calling for him to be irrevocably banned across social media.
“At this point, anything short of permanently deplatforming him is willfully negligent ― he will continue using his accounts to wreak havoc at scale if given the opportunity,” Accountable Tech co-founder Jesse Lehrich said in a statement shared with HuffPost, noting the nonprofit “doesn’t take censorship lightly” and pushes “for more nuanced approaches than takedowns and bans.”
Many have applauded the companies that silenced Trump this week. Of course, these firms chose to do so only at a time when his wrath no longer poses much of a threat to them; Democrats have secured control of the Senate and Biden will soon be in power.
Meanwhile, inside YouTube, which took down Trump’s message to rioters but not his account, employees are furious: “We warned our executives about this danger,” unionising workers at Alphabet, which owns YouTube, said in a statement. “YouTube refuses to hold Donald Trump accountable to the platform’s own rules by choosing only to remove one video instead of removing him from the platform entirely.”
Post-presidency, Trump’s influence will be inextricably linked to social media. He birthed the “Make America Great Again” movement online, and for years, his social platforms have been his direct line to the people — one he has exploited to foster a version of reality that advances his interests. And while Fox and other right-wing news networks will save a space for Trump on their airwaves, his relevance will inevitably dwindle without his digital soapbox or quick access to the enormous audience he has amassed on mainstream platforms. His longtime GOP allies are already abandoning him in droves.
Once he leaves the White House, the “troll in chief” will just be a troll. Even so, the societal fractures he has fuelled on social media will long outlast his tenure. There’s no easy fix to undo the seething distrust and hostility Trump has bred online — toward the media (or in his words, the “enemy of the people”), government institutions, science, immigrants, foreign nations, the incoming administration — or the belief he’s instilled in the minds of so many that his defeatamounts to the downfall of democracy.
As his supporters chanted while they laid siege to the Capitol, “This is just the beginning.”
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