More than a decade after joining the platform, one riddled with scandal and chutzpah, former president Donald Trump’s relationship with Twitter has ended in acrimony.
For years, Mr. Trump has tested the limits of acceptable speech on the platform, exposing the arbitrary enforcement of the ‘community guidelines’ that theoretically govern major social media platforms, while his administration used it to peddle indelible hatred and misinformation.
Even as the president’s seemingly innocuous tweets produced at times real-world consequences, Twitter executives attempted to avoid accountability and explain Mr. Trump’s repeated rule violations with exceptions for news-worthy world leaders.
Following the attempted putsch at the US capitol on the 6th January, incited in part by Mr. Trump’s own tweets, social media giants acted in quick succession to arrest any further potential of violence.
Just days later, Twitter was among the platforms that took the decisive steps in permanently suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts, spurred on from a range of figures that extend from Michelle Obama to Twitter’s own employees.
The Capitol siege engendered a crisis of confidence within American democracy, ending the president’s tenure as the first in US history to be impeached twice.
However, in some ways Mr. Trump’s forced exodus from social media could be deemed more damaging to his legacy. Twitter’s platform worked in congruence with the kind of politics that shaped Mr. Trump’s presidency. Its constricting word limit mirrored the president’s cavalier and terse attitude, each tweet short enough to broadcast the crux of his political message without getting swamped in the details.
The president understood that Twitter’s true value lay not in fostering progressive debate, deliberation or argument, but in constructing a reliable following, providing the aura of accessibility without the need to engage with either followers nor detractors, and a direct line to major news organisations without having to abide by the ‘presidential’ standard that bound previous incumbents to professional decorum.
Under the Trump administration, Twitter proved to be a Swiss-army knife of political utility, slowly evolving to become part of the administration’s very sinew as the president tweeted to his 80 million-plus followers about everything from his policy agenda to propagating false claims of electoral fraud that incited seditious violence.
The attack on the Capitol seemingly stiffened a few spines among Big Tech executives eager to avoid liability for the content on their platforms. Until his subsequent ban, Twitter, much like other platforms, took little action on Mr. Trump’s posts that promoted violence.
When, in response to the George Floyd protests in July, he tweeted “when the looting starts the shooting starts!”, Twitter kept the tweet up, and it wasn’t until Mr. Trump started to espouse claims of a “stolen election” that the company started flagging his tweets with an evolving list of disclaimers.
Mr. Trump’s suspension from social media platforms may provide grist for his supporters eager to highlight a liberal conspiracy against the former president. Yet, in taking away his ability to tweet and connect with his adherents, Twitter has also removed Mr. Trump’s ability to form a centralised voice of the opposition and, and has curbed his capacity to push misleading claims that proved to be a danger to American democratic institutions.
Indeed, research conducted by analytics firm Zignal Labs found that, in the week following Mr. Trump’s twitter suspension, misinformation about election fraud plummeted by 73 per cent, underscoring the capability of social media firms to suffocate harmful speech online.
The former president still has options should he again choose to build an online presence. Mr. Trump could take up residence on platforms popular among right-wing groups for their weak enforcement of rules – even more so than those of Twitter and Facebook – such as Gab, Parler and Telegram.
However, such apps don’t have the same undeniable reach or recognition as Big Tech firms; despite their recent surge in popularity, such traits take years to cultivate. Whether Mr. Trump’s online following will travel the same diminished trajectory as other controversial figures who have been ‘de-platformed’, such as the alt-right commentators Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, is yet to be seen.
Mr. Trump’s suspension from major platforms has also thrown into sharp relief the true balance of power in American public discourse. Ultimately, the decision to pull the president from a public platform came from a handful of billionaires from California, a decision that emphasises the unparalleled level of power that no elected official can claim.
The actions of Big Tech firms have renewed a fraught and complex debate about a company’s right to expurgate users who breach their guidelines, and an individual’s right to freedom of expression. Although Mr. Trump’s suspension has been lauded by his detractors as a move that is long overdue, the decision also attracted criticism from defenders of freedom of expression guaranteed under the US Constitution’s first amendment, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Kate Ruane, Senior Legislative Counsel for the ACLU, said in a statement, “We understand the desire to permanently suspend [Mr. Trump] now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable from the speech of billions – especially when political realities make those decision easier.”
Among the varying crises President Joe Biden has inherited, media regulation is unlikely to be high up on his list of priorities. However, the president has expressed keen support to do away with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a safeguard for media companies against legal liability for their users’ posts.
Such a move may encourage a culture of greater transparency and accountability among Big Tech bosses, and, done right, could ensure that the same platforms don’t once again foster a breeding ground for anti-democratic violence.