Social platforms flex their power, lock down Trump accounts

It remains unclear how the platforms will handle Trump once he leaves office and is no longer shielded from enforcement of most rules by his status as a world leader. And some critics saw the moves as cynical efforts by the companies to position themselves for a post-Trump future.

In announcing the unprecedented move, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the risk of allowing Trump to use the platform is too great following the president’s incitement of a mob on Wednesday. Zuckerberg said Trump’s account will be locked “for at least the next two weeks” and possibly indefinitely.

“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,” Zuckerberg wrote.

In light of Wednesday’s riot, however, Zuckerberg said a more aggressive approach is needed because of the “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

Twitch, the live-streaming site owned by Amazon and used by Trump’s campaign to stream speeches, disabled Trump’s account until he leaves office, saying it didn’t want to be used “to incite further violence.” Companies outside the social media world also scrambled to take stock of how they’d been used by those who swarmed the Capitol. E-commerce company Shopify shut down two online Trump memorabilia stores for promoting people or organizations “that threaten or condone violence to further a cause.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email that “it’s incredibly ironic, yet not surprising, that when the President spoke to the country at a critical time Big Tech chose to censor and block him from doing so.”

It was Twitter where Trump was likely to feel the effects most. The company locked his accounts for 12 hours after he repeatedly posted false accusations about the integrity of the election. Trump more than a decade ago embraced the platform’s immediacy and scale to rally loyalists, castigate enemies and spread false rumors.

The suspension was set to expire sometime Thursday; the president had not yet resumed tweeting as of Thursday evening. A company spokesman said Twitter could take further action as it kept track of “activity on the ground and statements made off Twitter.”

The platforms continued to face criticism from users who blamed them, in part, for creating an online environment that led to Wednesday’s violence.

“Today is the result of allowing people with hate in their hearts to use platforms that should be used to bring people together,” singer and actress Selena Gomez wrote on Twitter to her 64 million followers. “You have all failed the American people today, and I hope you’re going to fix things moving forward.”

Sen. Mark Warner, the incoming chair of the Senate intelligence committee, on Thursday called Facebook, Twitter and Google “collaborators” in Trump’s assault on U.S. democracy. “And their 11th-hour conversion now to suddenly take down Trump’s Facebook or Twitter feed is way too little too late,” the Virginia Democrat said during an Aspen Digital online forum.

The platforms’ actions followed years in which they hemmed and hawed over the dangerous misinformation and violent rhetoric Trump and his supporters have spread, contributing to Wednesday’s violence.

On Wednesday, the companies focused on a video Trump posted more than two hours after protesters entered the Capitol, interrupting lawmakers meeting in an extraordinary joint session to confirm the Electoral College results and President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Republican lawmakers and previous administration officials had begged Trump to give a statement to his supporters to quell the violence.

While Trump told supporters that “you have to go home now,” he also repeated false claims about voter fraud affecting the election. He then added: “We can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special.”

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all said they removed the video Wednesday, citing its misinformation or dangerous rhetoric.

In a statement Thursday morning, Trump said there would be an “orderly transition on January 20th” and acknowledged defeat in the election for the first time. His aides posted the statement on Twitter because the president’s account remained suspended.

Monica Stephens, a professor at the University of Buffalo who studies social media, said it made sense for Facebook and Twitter to try lighter forms of curbing misinformation in the months leading up to the election. “They’re getting flak from both sides of the political aisle,” she said.

Trump’s ardent supporters have flocked to Parler, Gab and other “free speech” social media sites that cater to conservative voices. Some were used by the people who stormed the Capitol. If mainstream platforms drive discussion about violence and social protest to more marginal sites, Stephens said, “it is still going to happen; it is just going to happen where it isn’t as read.”

Now that platforms have imposed stiff restrictions on Trump, companies like Facebook and Twitter may find it harder to ward off calls to ban other political figures who incite violence, said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor of journalism and media at the University of North Carolina. “Because they resisted and resisted but now they’ve done it, it is hard to walk that back,” she said.

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