Roland Li and Nora Mishanec
San Francisco Chronicle
Twitter permanently suspended President Trump’s account on Friday, citing the “risk of further incitement of violence.”
Social media companies like Twitter long gave Trump an outsize voice and enabled him to bypass media gatekeepers and reach followers directly. After years of stalling, citing free-speech principles and the need to keep public figures’ statements online for examination, they belatedly took action this week after Wednesday’s violent invasion of the Capitol.
Trump tweeted twice on Friday to his 88.7 million followers, writing that he would not attend the inauguration of his successor Joe Biden, along with a defiant message to his followers, saying those who voted for him “will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
Twitter said both tweets violated the company’s rule against glorification of violence. Some of Trump’s followers, the company said, were interpreting the messages as delegitimizing the election and encouraging them to disrupt the inauguration.
The tweets suggested Trump would not support an “orderly transition” and could push supporters to replicate Wednesday’s siege of the Capitol, Twitter said, adding that users have discussed a potential second attack on Jan. 17.
“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action,” the company said.
Twitter, Facebook and other companies, the largest outlets for internet users’ social posts, took the strongest steps to date to restrict or suspend Trump’s online activity in the wake of Wednesday’s events. Facebook and its Instagram division suspended Trump until at least the Jan. 20. Amazon’s Twitch, a video-game streaming service, suspended Trump’s channel indefinitely. Google’s YouTube took down a Trump video falsely claiming the election was fraudulent while telling supporters to go home Wednesday, and said it would continue to monitor videos for misinformation. On Friday, Reddit banned the /r/donaldtrump subreddit, or group — an unofficial outlet for Trump fans — for inciting violence. Trump’s allies Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell and Lin Wood were also suspended by Twitter on Friday.
Trump attempted to tweet from other accounts: @TeamTrump and apparently @GaryCoby, the account of Trump’s digital director, who changed his profile name and image to Trump’s. Both were quickly suspended. Tweets from @POTUS, the official account of the presidency, were deleted.
Trump said in a statement that Twitter employees had “coordinated with the Democrats and the Radical Left in removing my account … to silence me,” without providing evidence. He said his team was “negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon.” He also suggested he might build his own social network.
Twitter had previously resisted a wholesale restriction on Trump’s account, despite critics who previously said that he was breaking the company’s rules and inciting violence. Its policy on world leaders states that “direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues” typically don’t break rules.
The rules prohibit “clear and direct threats of violence against an individual,” but direct interactions with fellow public figures “would likely not result in enforcement.”
“In other cases involving a world leader, we will err on the side of leaving the content up if there is a clear public interest in doing so,” the company’s policy states.
“Our public interest framework exists to enable the public to hear from elected officials and world leaders directly. It is built on a principle that the people have a right to hold power to account in the open,” Twitter said Friday.
Twitter fact-checked President Trump for the first time in late May, when the president made unsubstantiated claims that mail-in ballots for the 2020 election would be “substantially fraudulent.” The social media giant slapped a warning label on that tweet directing users to “get the facts about mail-in ballots.”
A few days later, Twitter put a rules violation message on a Trump tweet that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” during protests for racial justice.
The company began labeling Trump’s tweets falsely claiming election fraud as “disputed” in November. Before it deleted Trump’s tweets on Wednesday during the riot, it blocked other users from replying, retweeting or liking them, a restriction that Twitter has used on tweets by allies of the president including Rudy Giuliani.
Social media companies “totally silence conservatives voices,” Trump wrote on Twitter in May, without presenting any evidence. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.” He complained that the warning labels they placed on his posts were “stifling free speech.”
But Congress gave internet companies broad discretion to remove offensive or otherwise troubling content in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Trump has unsuccessfully pushed Congress to revoke Section 230 and issued an executive order last year to amend it. Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said on Thursday in an interview with tech news website Protocol that the agency has dropped a plan to review the law, citing a lack of time before the Biden administration begins.
“The conservatives’ threat of regulating big (social media companies) out of existence is much less credible than it was,” said Henry Farrell, a scholar at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “Trump is not in any place to do anything effective. And the fact that he is being accused of effectively organizing sedition provided Twitter with a strong rationale for permanently suspending him, while being able to point to a substantive reason for doing so.”
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