After years of treating President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric with a light touch, Facebook and Instagram are silencing his social media accounts for the rest of his presidency. The move, which many called justified following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, is also a somber reminder of the enormous power that social media platforms can exercise when they choose.
Facebook and Instagram announced on Jan. 7 that they will bar Trump from posting at least until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Twitter followed on Friday, Jan. 8, by permanently suspending Trump's account.
In announcing the unprecedented move, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the risk of allowing Trump to use the platform is too great following the president’s incitement of a mob that touched off Wednesday’s deadly riot at the Capitol. Zuckerberg says Trump’s account will be locked “for at least the next two weeks” but could remain locked indefinitely.
“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, Joe Biden,” Zuckerberg wrote the day after the attack on Capitol Hill.
Trump has repeatedly harnessed the power of social media to spread falsehoods about election integrity and the results of the presidential race. Platforms like Facebook have occasionally labeled or even removed some of his posts, but the overall response has failed to satisfy a growing number of critics who say the platforms have enabled the spread of dangerous misinformation.
In light of last week's riot, however, Zuckerberg said a more aggressive approach is needed.
“The current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government,” he wrote.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, will also block Trump’s ability to post on its platform. YouTube, owned by Google, also announced more general changes that will penalize accounts spreading misinformation about voter fraud in the 2020 election, with repeat offenders facing permanent removal from the platform.
While some cheered the platforms’ actions, experts noted that the companies’ actions follow years of hemming and hawing on the dangerous misinformation and violent rhetoric Trump and his supporters have spread, contributing to Wednesday’s violence.
Though deprived of his big online megaphones, Trump does have alternative options of much smaller reach. The far right friendly Parler may be the leading candidate, though Google and Apple have both removed it from their app stores and Amazon decided to boot it off its web hosting service. That could knock it offline for a week, Parler’s CEO said.
Trump may launch his own platform. But that won’t happen overnight, and free speech experts anticipate growing pressure on all social media platforms to curb incendiary speech as Americans take stock of Wednesday’s violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-incited mob.
In a statement Friday, Trump said: “We have been negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future.”
Experts had predicted Trump might pop up on Parler, a 2-year-old magnet for the far right that claims more than 12 million users and where his sons Eric and Don Jr. are already active. Parler hit headwinds, though, on Friday, as Google yanked the platform’s smartphone app from its app store for allowing postings that seek “to incite ongoing violence in the U.S.” Apple followed suit on Saturday evening after giving Parler 24 hours to address complaints it was being used to “plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.” Public safety issues will need to be resolved before it is restored, Apple said.
Amazon struck another blow Saturday, informing Parler it would need to look for a new web-hosting service effective midnight Sunday. It reminded Parler in a letter, first reported by Buzzfeed, that it had informed it in the past few weeks of 98 examples of posts “that clearly encourage and incite violence” and said the platform “poses a very real risk to public safety.”
Parler CEO John Matze decried the punishments as “a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace. We were too successful too fast,” he said in a Saturday night post, saying it was possible Parler would be unavailable for up to a week “as we rebuild from scratch.”
Earlier, Matze complained of being scapegoated.
“Standards not applied to Twitter, Facebook or even Apple themselves, apply to Parler.” He said he “won’t cave to politically motivated companies and those authoritarians who hate free speech.”
Losing access to the app stores of Google and Apple – whose operating systems power hundreds of millions of smartphones – severely limits Parler’s reach, though it will continue to be accessible via web browser. Losing Amazon Web Services will mean Parler needs to scramble to find another web host in addition to the re-engineering.
Gab is another potential landing spot for Trump. But it, too, has had troubles with internet hosting. Google and Apple both booted it from their app stores in 2017 and it was left internet-homeless for a time the following year due to anti-Semitic posts attributed to the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Microsoft also terminated a web-hosting contract.
Online speech experts expect social media companies led by Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to more vigorously police hate speech and incitement in the wake of the Capitol rebellion, as Western democracies led by Nazism-haunted Germany already do.