Twitter on Friday banned President Donald Trump from its site, a punishment for his role in inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol this week, robbing him of the megaphone he used to communicate directly with more than 88 million supporters and critics.
The move amounted to a historic rebuke for a president who had used the social-networking site to fuel his rise to political prominence. Twitter has been Trump’s primary communication tool to push policies, drive news cycles, fire officials, disperse falsehoods, savage critics and praise allies.
Twitter had resisted taking action against Trump for years, even as critics called on the company to suspend him, out of a belief that a world leader should be able to speak to his or her citizens unfettered. But Trump’s escalating tweets casting doubt on the 2020 election - and the riot at the U.S. Capitol his comments helped inspire - led the company to reverse course.
Twitter specifically raised the potential that Trump’s recent tweets could mobilize his supporters to commit acts of violence around President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, an analysis that experts saw as a major expansion in the company’s approach to moderating harmful content online.
Twitter cited two Trump tweets. One stated that the 75 million who voted for him in the last election were “American Patriots” who will “not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” He then announced he would not go to Biden’s swearing-in ceremony later this month.
In a blog post, the company argued the two messages violated its glorification of violence policy since they “could inspire others to replicate violent acts” that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. According to Twitter, his second tweet could be read by followers as an encouragement to commit violence during the inauguration, which “would be a ‘safe,’ target as he will not be attending.”
In doing so, Twitter joined Facebook in punishing the president in the waning hours of his first term. Facebook said Thursday its suspension is indefinite, lasting at least the next two weeks, citing a similar belief that the risks are “simply too great” at a moment of transition for the country. Both tech giants previously joined Google-owned YouTube in removing or limiting access to Trump’s posts, including a video he shared earlier this week that once against advanced widely disproved falsehoods about the validity of the 2020 vote.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Twitter’s punishment is the harshest judgment the site has at its disposal. It appeared to be the first time the company had ever taken such an action since instituting a broad policy around world leaders last year, illustrating the slow shift in Silicon Valley as the country’s most popular, prominent platforms grew more comfortable in taking on Trump.
Facebook, for example, had its first of many furious internal debates over how to handle Trump in December 2015, when as a presidential candidate he posted a video in which he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Many employees called it obvious hate speech, but top executives chose to defer, by creating an exemption for content they deemed “newsworthy.”
The challenges kept coming as Trump’s presidency and rhetoric brought mainstream attention right-wing ideas once considered beyond the fringe of appropriate political rhetoric. A particularly explosive flash point for both Twitter and Facebook came in May, when Trump made a social media post calling protesters after the killing of unarmed Black motorist George Floyd “THUGS.” Even then, though, Twitter opted to label Trump’s tweet as harmful and hide it from public view - and Facebook petitioned for Trump to change his tone in private. Neither suspended his account indefinitely.
Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a civil rights group that has been pushing social media companies to police Trump’s behavior more aggressively, fretted on Friday that it took so long for Twitter and its peers to act given the president’s past missteps - and their potential to have touched off real-world violence.
“But kicking him off of Twitter, so he can’t spread disinformation and incite the public, is huge,” he said. “This is way too late, but I do not underestimate or undersell the significance of what the means moving forward without him having a direct line to reach an audience any time that he wanted to.”
Twitter said it delivered its final banishment out of a concern that Trump’s tweets essentially amounted to a “glorification of violence.” The company said his stated intention to skip the inauguration essentially served as “further confirmation that the election was not legitimate.” And Twitter found Trump’s rallying cry to his supporters served as “encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts”- partly because the president made clear he would not be in attendance personally.
In considering how his supporters might read and interpret his messages, Twitter also potentially opened the door for the company to take a more aggressive approach on other content, including tweets from political leaders, in the future, experts said.
“That’s a standard that’s never existed,” said Alex Stamos, a former Facebook chief security officer, now head of Stanford Internet Observatory, a disinformation research group. “The ‘impact’ standard has never existed.”
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Stamos added that Twitter’s action - and Facebook’s recent enforcement efforts - meant that “the right-wing social media ecosystem in America has been shattered.
The move comes amid a wave of criticism from Democratic lawmakers and Twitter’s own employees, who demanded in a letter written this week that the company’s leaders permanently suspend Trump’s account. In an internal letter addressed to chief executive Jack Dorsey and his top executives viewed by The Washington Post, roughly 350 Twitter employees requested an investigation into the past several years of corporate actions that led to Twitter’s role in the insurrection.
“Despite our efforts to serve the public conversation, as Trump’s megaphone, we helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th,” the employees wrote. “We request an investigation into how our public policy decisions led to the amplification of serious anti-democratic threats. We must learn from our mistakes in order to avoid causing future harm.”
“We play an unprecedented role in civil society and the world’s eyes are upon us. Our decisions this week will cement our place in history, for better or worse,” the employees added.
In a statement, Twitter spokesperson Brandon Borrman wrote, “Twitter encourages an open dialogue between our leadership and employees, and we welcome our employees expressing their thoughts and concerns in whichever manner feels right to them.”
Twitter on Wednesday initially labeled Trump’s tweets about the election as disputed. But a subsequent video from the president - calling for calm while continuing to peddle disinformation - prompted the company to step up its enforcement actions. Twitter ultimately locked the president out of his account for the first time, requiring him to delete his offending tweets - then wait 12 hours - in order to regain access. That came Thursday morning, and Trump issued his first public comments on the site later that night. Twitter said it would suspend Trump permanently if he continues to break its rules, putting users at risk.
The letter is addressed to “Staff,” company lingo for C-suite executives who report directly to Dorsey, including Vijaya Gadde, who leads the company’s legal, policy, and trust and safety divisions. During a virtual meeting on Friday afternoon, Dorsey and Gadde shared their thoughts on Twitter’s response, according to an employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
After Twitter’s first-ever blockade of Trump’s account, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday morning that Facebook would also escalate its response to Trump. For the first time, Zuckerberg said Trump would be blocked from posting to his Facebook and Instagram accounts “for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
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Zuckerberg’s response also followed internal pressure, including questions from employees posted on an internal message board.