By Mike Masnick
When I started writing this post, it was about Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump’s account indefinitely, and at least until Joe Biden is inaugurated in a couple weeks. I had lots to say on that… and then Friday afternoon, Twitter decided to ban Trump’s Twitter account permanently. This is a bigger deal, not just because it’s permanent, rather than indefinite, but because so much of Trump’s identity over the last four years (and before that) is tied up in his Twitter account and followers.
Certainly, all of this has kicked off a whole new storm from across the political spectrum. You have Trump supporters who are furious and (falsely) claiming that this is “censorship” or unprecedented and heavy handed (it is none of those things). Then you have Trump haters who are screaming about how this is all way too late and is trying to close the barn door after the horses have long since bolted. I think neither argument is accurate. Will Oremus has a long (and very interesting!) look over on OneZero about how Facebook supposedly chucked out its own rulebook to come up with an excuse to suspend Trump’s account:
Yet Facebook’s “indefinite” ban on Trump marks an overnight reversal of the policy on Trump and other political leaders that the social network has spent the past four years honing, justifying, and defending. The unprecedented move, which lacks a clear basis in any of Facebook’s previously stated policies, highlights for the millionth time that the dominant platforms are quite literally making up the rules of online speech as they go along. As I wrote in 2019, there’s just one golden rule of content moderation that every platform follows: If a policy becomes too controversial, change it.
Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook has allowed Trump to use its platform in a manner “consistent with our own rules” is laughable. The only thing that has been consistent, until now, is Facebook’s determination to contort, hair-split, and reimagine its rules to make sure nothing Trump posted would fall too far outside them. The Washington Post wrote a rather definitive account of the social network’s yearslong Trump-appeasement campaign earlier this year. Among other Trump-friendly measures, the Post noted, “Facebook has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers.”
And Twitter is also justifying its decision by saying that the reason was a rules violation:
We assessed the two Tweets referenced above under our Glorification of Violence policy, which aims to prevent the glorification of violence that could inspire others to replicate violent acts and determined that they were highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
This determination is based on a number of factors, including:
I don’t need to post the factors. You can take a look yourself if you want. So, Oremus is mostly correct that they’re making the rules up as they go along, but the problem with this framing is that it assumes that there are some magical rules you can put in place and then objectively apply them always. That’s never ever been the case. The problem with so much of the content moderation debate is that all sides assume these things. They assume that it’s easy to set up rules and easy to enforce them. Neither is true. Radiolab did a great episode a few years ago, detailing the process by which Facebook made and changed its rules. And it highlights some really important things including that almost every case is different, that it’s tough to apply rules to every case, and that context is always changing. And that also means the rules must always keep changing.
A few years back, we took a room full of content moderation experts and asked them to make content moderation decisions on eight cases — none of which I’d argue are anywhere near as difficult as deciding what to do with the President of the United States. And we couldn’t get these experts to agree on anything. On every case, we had at least one person choose each of the four options we gave them, and to defend that position. The platforms have rules because it gives them a framework to think about things, and those rules are useful in identifying both principles for moderation and some bright lines.
But every case is different.
And no matter what you think of Trump, his case was different.
The regular rules could never apply to Trump because Trump is not a regular person. And, no, not even comparisons to foreign leaders are apt, because as silly as American exceptionalism is, the United States is still different than nearly every other country in the world. And, it’s not just the position he’s in (for the next few days anyway), but also Trump’s willingness to use his account to make pronouncements unlike pretty much any other world leader (or at least, world leader of consequence).
Trump is, perhaps, the perfect example of why demanding clear rules on social media and how they moderate is stupid.
As for the question of why now? Well, clearly, the context has changed. The context is that Trump inspired a mob of goons to invade the Capitol building this week, and there remain legitimate threats that his cultish followers will continue to do significant damage. Certainly some people have insisted that this kind of violence was always a risk — and it was. But it had not actually erupted to this level in this fashion. Again, we’re talking about context. There’s always more context.
And given that the situations are always edge cases, that the context always matters, and that things are always shifting, you can totally see why it’s a reasonable decision to ban Trump from their platforms right now, based on everything else going on, and the likelihood that he might inspire more violence. I think it’s worth reading Ben Thompson’s analysis as well. He’s long explained the risks associated with banning Trump from these platforms, and suggested why they should not have in the past. But the thing that changed for him, beyond even just the threat to democracy, is the threat to the rights of both individuals and companies to make their own decisions on these things:
Remember my highest priority, even beyond respect for democracy, is the inviolability of liberalism, because it is the foundation of said democracy. That includes the right for private individuals and companies to think and act for themselves, particularly when they believe they have a moral responsibility to do so, and the belief that no one else will. Yes, respecting democracy is a reason to not act over policy disagreements, no matter how horrible those policies may be, but preserving democracy is, by definition, even higher on the priority stack.
Turn off Trump’s account.
But here’s the more important point — especially directed at the people who will falsely claim that this is somehow censorship: President Trump is not being censored. He is not being limited. At any moment of any day (certainly for the next two weeks, and likely beyond) he can walk out of his office and have every major TV news channel (and every internet streaming platform) broadcast whatever he wants to say, and people will see it.
And to those who think that Twitter should have done this earlier, or that it would have made a difference, recognize that your concern is not so much with Twitter, but with Trump himself. Remember that while Trump might not be able to send a tweet right now, he still (literally) has the power to launch nuclear missiles at Twitter’s headquarters. And, really, that’s the problem. Trump is obviously too toxic for Twitter. But he’s also too toxic for the White House. And the real complaint shouldn’t be about Twitter or Facebook acting too late, but about Congress failing to do their job and remove the mad man from power.