As you no doubt already know, today President Trump incited his followers to storm the US Capitol, where they disrupted the Constitutionally mandated certification of the Electoral College ballots affirming Joe Biden’s victory against him. Odds that his ongoing attempted coup will succeed remain low, but not impossible. And a bedrock belief that many of us have carried all our lives — that American democracy will long outlast us — has never been so shaken.
Yesterday, I wrote about the sense that the fracture in our shared sense of reality seems to be accelerating. I asked whether platforms ought to take it as a moral responsibility to reverse that divide — and, if so, how. Today I advocate for one difficult, minor, but essential step in that direction.
It’s time for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to remove Trump.
Calls for platforms to remove Trump have been coming for years. The president’s use and abuse of Twitter to threaten nuclear war, attack average citizens, and undermine elections have been a defining feature of the media landscape since his 2016 campaign. Twitter has aided and abetted the president for years, putting him on its suggested user list even as he promoted the birtherism conspiracy and spread other racist lies.
In February 2017, a year into Trump’s presidency, my friend TC Sottek called on Twitter to pull the plug. “Twitter is not an internet service provider or anything resembling a utility,” he wrote in The Verge. “It has no obligation to behave like a neutral party; in fact, given its unique position to influence Trump’s behavior, it arguably has a moral obligation to take action.”
What Sottek wrote is true. But for years, I opposed Twitter and others deplatforming the president. My reasons were largely practical ones. Surely the president would decamp to a smaller site if banned; surely a Twitter bot would scrape and instantly tweet anything he posted elsewhere, largely defeating the point of a ban. As irritating as the move surely would have been to Trump, I thought, the gesture would largely have been symbolic. And at the end of the day, the man was the duly elected president.
No longer. Americans voted Trump out of office, but instead of accepting that result, he has sought to overturn it. By inciting the violent occupation of the US Capitol, Trump has given up any legitimate claim to power. In 14 days, barring catastrophe, he will be out of office. The only question is how much damage he will do in the meantime — and we know, based on long experience, that his Twitter and Facebook accounts will be among his primary weapons.
“There have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance,” said Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook. “Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won't do it.”
The platforms did take some steps today to limit the president’s reach. In a less than halfhearted effort to encourage his mob to abandon the Capitol, Trump posted a chaotic, lie-filled address to Twitter and Facebook. “We love you,” he told the mob. “You’re very special.” Twitter initially labeled the video as disputed and prevented it from being liked or retweeted, though quote-tweets still allowed it to spread far and wide.
Facebook took it down. “We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence,” said Guy Rosen, the company’s head of integrity.
Then Twitter took it down, too.
Later in the day, Trump celebrated the attack on his own government. “Remember this day forever!” he tweeted.
That appalling message could alone be grounds for removal from the platform. But the problem goes far beyond any one post. We know by now that there will always be more and worse posts to come.
And the rot runs deep. In a Facebook “Stop the Steal” group, a user called for the mob to “Burn the chambers!” On Telegram, neo-Nazi accelerationists heralded the arrival of a second Civil War. And inside the capitol, the terrorists stopped for selfies and broadcast themselves live on the platforms.
It was a coup that was designed for, and helped made possible by, social media.
The violence should not only or even primarily be attributed to the big platforms. As Jane Lytvynenko and Molly Hensley-Clancy reported at BuzzFeed, today’s violence has been planned in the open on niche web forums and conservative alt-network Parler.
But the big platforms also played a role, they wrote:
Even on mainstream social media channels like Twitter and TikTok, calls for violence were easy to find. According to Advanced Democracy, more than half QAnon-related accounts on Twitter — about 20,800 — mentioned Jan. 6, although the majority of the posts didn’t explicitly call for violence.
Enough is enough.
Trump ought to be removed from office. He ought to be prosecuted for his crimes. And so should the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol and sought to end our democracy. (Instead, most of them appear to have walked away without so much as being arrested.)
Given the stakes here, whether the president has access to his social media accounts is at most a secondary concern. But I cover the intersection of tech platforms and democracy, and what platforms can and should do for our democracy today is to finally pull the most powerful lever they have.
They will have elected officials of both parties on their side. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney called today’s events “an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States.” William Cohen, a former Republican senator, called for the Cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment. So did the anarchist liberal firebrands over at, uh, the National Association of Manufacturers.
Across the aisle, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, announced she would draw up articles of impeachment. “It’s a matter of preserving our Republic,” she said, “and we need to fulfill our oath.”
Indeed, advocating for the overthrow of the government is a crime, even and especially when it is the president advocating the overthrow. Losing the ability to tweet is not nearly the punishment Trump and his enablers deserve for putting our entire democracy at risk. But today’s events have made it clearer than ever before that doing so is not just possible, but necessary.
No one should be under the illusion that deplatforming Trump will end the erosion of our democracy. But we saw today that Trump’s continued presence will accelerate it. And should he leave office with his platform intact, he can immediately declare his candidacy for president in 2024 and use it to further escalate his attacks on the republic.
If there is to be any silver lining in today’s awful events in Silicon Valley today, it should be that they give the people running our platforms a new moral clarity about their role in world events. Deplatforming is a step not to be taken lightly. But millions of people have been deplatformed for far less than what Trump has done.
The time has come for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to act.
Ban Trump now.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech companies.
⬆️ Trending up: Amazon said it would contribute $2 billion to create affordable housing in three of its hub cities. The company will invest in projects — mostly involving low-cost loans — in Seattle, Arlington, VA, and Nashville, TN. (Nicole Friedman / Wall Street Journal)
⬇️ Trending down: Amazon began advertising free podcasts as costing $8.95 and said they were “discounted” for Audible members. Hard to decide which would be worse from a reputation perspective: Amazon doing this on purpose, or it somehow happening on accident. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
⭐ Democrats’ apparent victory in the Georgia Senate run-off races could save net neutrality. Russell Brandom explains why at The Verge:
Before Georgia, net neutrality advocates were facing a gridlock in Congress and the frightening possibility that the incoming president wouldn’t be able to appoint his own FCC commissioners. But as the Senate falls back under Democratic control, the possibilities for net neutrality have expanded dramatically. Now, Democrats can push for more progressive FCC nominees that will reinstate the net neutrality rules from 2015, or even push for legislation that would write net neutrality into law. Flipping these two Senate seats could make the difference between keeping net neutrality in a permanent legal limbo and making it the law of the land.
Already, net neutrality advocates are barely containing their excitement. Reached for comment, Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer laid out a laundry list of progressive goals that can now be pursued, from overturning FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s order to implementing more aggressive privacy and connectivity policies.
A Democrat-led Senate could mean a national privacy bill is coming. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is expected to lead the Commerce Committee, introduced a comprehensive federal privacy framework last year. (Issie Lapowsky Emily Birnbaum / Protocol)
Democrats spent four times as much on Facebook ads as Republicans did in the run-up to the Georgia election. “Seven of the the top 10 spenders on political Facebook ads in the week leading up to Georgia's election supported Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Senator-elect Reverend Raphael Warnock.” (Issie Lapowsky / Protocol)
Facebook’s political ad ban in Georgia resumed after the polls closed. So when do political ads come back to Facebook in the United States? After Biden is inaugurated? (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Here are 13 times Senator-elect Jon Ossoff was such a millennial on Twitter. In 2012, a then-25-year-old Osoff asked Pitchfork when they would be reviewing the new Imagine Dragons album. (Scott Lucas / BuzzFeed)
CEOs of some of America’s biggest companies are considering withholding campaign donations from lawmakers seeking to impede the Biden presidential transition. Go for it! If you think autocracy will be good for business, ask Jack Ma how it worked out for him. (Emily Glazer and Chip Cutter / Wall Street Journal)
An Italian court ordered Facebook to pay about $4.7 million in damages to an Italian software development company for allegedly copying its feature for finding nearby friends from an Italian app called Faround. This feels … unlikely to me? (Reuters)
The New York Stock Exchange will delist three big Chinese telecoms to comply with an order from President Trump. Shares of China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom are no longer available to be traded. (Jesse Pound / CNBC)
Tech stocks saw modest declines Wednesday on the likelihood that Democrats would retake control of the Senate. But few seem to think that radical new regulations are on the way anytime soon. (Will Horner and Caitlin McCabe / Wall Street Journal)
Facebook redesigned its Pages product. Pages feel ever-less relevant in a world moving to private groups; they are now losing their public “like” counts, in a belated acknowledgement of their relative meaninglessness. (Queenie Wong / CNET)
Google is expected to add required privacy labels to its iOS apps as early as this week. The company’s iOS apps have not been updated since early December, prompting speculation it was in conflict with Apple. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
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