Deplatforming Donald Trump

Justin Hendrix / Jan 7, 2021

It may be the right move, but expect it to contribute to more violence from the President's supporters

Just hours after inciting what history books will eventually settle on calling either a coup attempt, a mob attack or an insurrection, Donald Trump finds himself in a unique position for a soon to be ex-President: temporarily locked out and possibly permanently banned from the use of his social media accounts:

  • Wednesday night, Twitter locked his account until 12 hours after he deleted tweets that violated the company’s policies, and threatened a permanent ban for future violations.
  • Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, said Thursday his company company would lock Trump's accounts through Inauguration Day, saying that “the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
  • Both Twitter and YouTube took down a video released by the White House in which Trump praised his supporters' actions and repeated false claims about voter fraud.

Critics of the Silicon Valley platforms who have long called for a more stringent response to problematic social media content, and in particular that from the President himself, hailed the decision. For example, Kara Swisher penned a column titled It’s Time for Social-Media Platforms to Permanently Ban Trump: "Far too much of this debate has focused on the First Amendment — which only states that only Congress and no one else shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech — and too little on the responsibility that leading companies and those who run them have beyond their bottom line," she wrote.

Some voices previously less keen on moderating Trump's use of the platforms came over to Swisher's point of view after watching the violence unfold at the Capitol. "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. Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won't do it," tweeted former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos, now at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Still others see this as a sea change moment- one that may usher in a new willingness to introduce regulations that would limit hate speech, incitement and other extremist content on the platforms. In The Washington Post, Dipayan Ghosh observed that "through American history, we have given preference to the openness of markets, unbridled by regulation. But this has come with a single important exception: When markets impede our progress as a democracy, they must be restrained. The Internet must be subject to this principle," he wrote.

And yet a chorus of voices regarded the moves by the platform as simply 'too little, too late,' from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) to CNN reporter Donie O'Sullivan:

But few so far have acknowledged another dangerous possibility: de-platforming Donald Trump now, even if it is the right decision in the long term, is likely to further feed the grievances of right wing extremists who regard their President as the embattled victim of a widespread conspiracy to steal the election. Fueled by months of false Republican claims that the platforms inordinately muzzle right wing voices- led by voices such as Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX, also one of the leaders of the spurious attempt to challenge the election's outcome- many on the right regard Big Tech as the enemy, part of the cabal that is aligned against their President. What signal will they take from what surely must look, from their perspective, like a coordinated attempt to censor their leader? And what role might that conclusion play in further violence?

Yesterday, Trump supporters demonstrated at statehouses in Washington, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Michigan, California, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas and other states in solidarity with the insurrectionists on the Capitol. New threats are already raging on right wing message boards and across social media sites. There is plenty of evidence that many Trump supporters reject the notion that they were even responsible for the worst yesterday's events, clinging instead to yet more conspiracy theories, even as we are just learning now about details of yesterday's attack and how much worse it might have been. The Department of Justice acknowledges at least two bombs were discovered. One man had prepared eleven Molotov cocktails. What will the next attack look like?

Like any relationship, waiting until there is a catastrophe to create conflict is normally the wrong decision. Social platforms have mostly danced around the President, no matter how many times he proved himself a bigot, a liar, a friend of fascists. Indeed, some of have actively courted him: Mark Zuckerberg famously had a secret dinner with him at the White House while his company was intensely lobbying the government to fend off regulation. Now the catastrophe has come, and the time for half measures and accommodations is past. It is right to shut down the President's means to raise a violent insurrection. But the insurrectionists no longer need the President's Twitter feed or Facebook posts to organize. They have received their orders, they are widely distributed across the country, and many were no doubt further radicalized by yesterday's events.

We may never see another Facebook post from Donald Trump, but the violence and hate he incited there and on the other platforms is impossible to remove from the network. It will for years continue activate people in ways we cannot predict. Like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's break from the President only yesterday or Ambassador and former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's resignation earlier today, it is too late for Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojicki to absolve themselves. Shots were fired. Blood was drawn. Yesterday was only the beginning.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...