Three of the world's most powerful social media companies — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — acted against President Donald Trump for posting content that either expressed sympathy for the rioters who swarmed the Capitol on Wednesday in an apparent attempt to violently overturn the 2020 election or for spreading disinformation about the election's legitimacy.
In a series of tweets posted Wednesday, Twitter explained that "as a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, D.C., we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy." These tweets included Trump's video response to his supporters rioting in the Capitol and one in which he defended the insurrectionists by writing that "these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots" and urged the rioters to "remember this day forever!"
The company added that Trump's account would be locked for 12 hours and will remain locked if that and the other incendiary tweets are not removed. If Trump violates any Twitter Rules in the future, including their Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, the company said that it will permanently suspend Trump's account. As of Thursday morning, the suspension window has passed and the tweets are no longer visible on Trump's timeline, but so far, the president has not tweeted today.
Traditionally Twitter does not apply its anti-violence policy to world leaders, arguing that it is in the public interest to see what important political figures have to say. On Wednesday, however, Twitter added that "our public interest policy — which has guided our enforcement action in this area for years — ends where we believe the risk of harm is higher and/or more severe."
Facebook took a similar action against Trump on Wednesday after finding that he violated the company's policies with two of his posts, including the video response to his supporter's actions at the Capitol, in which he repeated his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him and told the mob, "We love you. You're very special."
Facebook Vice President for Integrity Guy Rosen tweeted that the video was taken down because "this is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump's video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence."
Facebook and Instagram, a photo-sharing site owned by the company, both subsequently decided to prohibit Trump's accounts from publishing for 24 hours. On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that, because "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," his company is "extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete."
Facebook has faced harsh criticism in the past for allegedly giving preferential treatment to right-wing news sources and throttling progressive ones, as well as for a supposed Instagram "bug" that hid hashtags which criticized Trump while not doing the same thing for Joe Biden. These policies have caused Facebook employees to push back against Zuckerberg's policies, including staging a virtual walkout in June to protest the company allowing Trump's violent and sophistic posts to remain on their site. This internal dissension continues; according to BuzzFeed News, Facebook froze conversation on at least three threads in their internal message board among employees who talked about banning Trump entirely from their platform. The company did not provide an explanation for why it did this.
Alex Stamos, Facebook's former chief security officer and currently a professor at Stanford University, told BuzzFeed News that "you don't want incredibly powerful private actors choosing which democratic actors get speech, and the basis of that concern is the protection of that democracy. But the votes are counted, the president lost, and he's now rejecting the democratic will. There are no legitimate arguments for keeping him up."
Twitter and Facebook are not alone in acting against Trump. YouTube took down the video — the same video that factored into the Twitter and Facebook suspensions, in which Trump addressed the coup attempt in Washington — because the president lied by claiming that he had won the 2020 election; although the company will allow the video to be cited by sources that place it in a factually accurate context, as of December 2020 it has banned any video that repeats Trump's false claims about widespread voter fraud costing him that election. The company confirmed to Fast Company that this is why it took down that video. Snapchat has also taken the step of locking Trump's account there, which the president regularly uses to post social media content.
Trump has clashed with social media platforms in the past. After Twitter added a fact-check label to two of his tweets attempting to lay the foundations for him to claim the election was stolen by falsely stating that mail-in ballots are likely to be fraudulent, Trump said he would respond to social media platforms he perceived as hostile by moving to "strong regulate" or "close them down" and subsequently signed an executive order that instructed the Federal Communications Commission to draft a new regulation that could exempt those companies from certain liability protections.
"The threat by Donald Trump to shut down social media platforms that he finds objectionable is a dangerous overreaction by a thin-skinned president. Any such move would be blatantly unconstitutional under the First Amendment," Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told Salon by email at the time. "That doesn't make the threat harmless, however, because the president has many ways in which he can hurt individual companies, and his threat to do so as a way of silencing dissent is likely to chill freedom of expression and will undermine constitutional democracy in the long run."