By Sofia Eichsteadt '22
In the wake of the attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. by right-wing extremists, egged on by former President Donald J. Trump, numerous social media sites banned the President’s personal accounts, citing his rhetoric as potentially violent.
Twitter, Trump’s social media platform of choice, was the first to announce a permanent suspension of his personal account in a statement made on January 8. The platform cited numerous stating they “must be read in the context of broader events in the country” regarding the possible new tweets that potentially spark further violence. Other social media platforms followed.
To those who say that the former President was silenced with the ban: he could have the attention of every media station whenever he wanted. Social media was not his sole way of reaching the public; in fact it’s harder for the President of the United States to hide from the media than it is for him to talk to them. However, the power social media has over public conversation is no laughing matter. In recent years, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become synonymous with places for citizens to express themselves and their views on a wide scale.
The issue is that Twitter and Facebook don’t have to give everyone their constitutional rights - they are not the government and therefore do not have to adhere to those principles. It is within someone’s First Amendment right to say that the earth is flat, or the moon landing was faked, or that Donald Trump won the November 5 election in a landslide but Twitter has the ability to take you off the platform for spreading misinformation. If Twitter were a government entity, this would be a violation of freedom of speech. However, Twitter is a private corporation and can do whatever it wants, within reason.
To those who have praised Twitter and Facebook for banning Trump: this may have been too little, too late, especially when considering the tendency for platform users to influence other users towards extremist conspiracy theories that resemble the ones that Trump and his followers often sparked. Facebook’s own internal findings in 2016 indicated that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to [Facebook’s] recommendation tools,” according to GQ. Since then, Facebook has hindered any attempts to mitigate this effect, gutting any programs that might change their algorithms. This allowed conspiracy theories about election fraud to spread, basically unchecked, across the platform. This was an issue on Twitter as well, when the President himself retweeted such conspiracy theories, allowing them to reach a larger audience.
Twitter, for its part, near the Nov. 5 election did begin flagging Trump tweets about election fraud. Each flag would link the viewer to a news article explaining whatever it was that the President was spreading misinformation about: be it about mail-in votes, Dominion voting machines, or election results.
It was a good thing for social media platforms to finally ban Trump along with well-known racists, conspiracy theorists, and people who may have been tied to the events that happened on January 6 at the Capitol. However, if the perception of these social media platforms is that they are the only places for citizens to practice their freedom of speech, then maybe we should take a second look. In this internet-centric world, with everyone having the ability to freely express their thoughts and opinions on social media platforms such as Twitter, should these platforms be seen as necessary entities for the expression of speech? Or should these platforms be held more accountable for the misinformation and conspiracy theories they allowed to circulate until it was too late?
The issue here is complicated. On one hand, we have the former President himself utilizing the platforms to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation and to rile up his base into violent acts. On the other, we see that some people feel that social media platforms hold too much power in terms of who they allow on their platforms. If the former President can be kicked off, anyone can, for any reason.