Trump muted as Twitter takes away his bullhorn

President Donald Trump

In this file photo taken on January 20, 2017, US President Donald Trump attends the Freedom Ball at the Washington, DC, Convention Center following his inauguration as the 45th US President in Washington, DC.

Photo credit: Jim Watson | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Twitter has been Trump's primary communication tool to push policies, drive news cycles, fire officials, dispense falsehoods, savage opponents and praise allies.
  • Twitter had resisted taking action against Trump for years, even as critics called on the company to suspend him.

Twitter on Friday banned President Donald Trump from its site, a punishment for his role in inciting violence at the US Capitol this week, robbing him of the megaphone he used to communicate directly with more than 88 million supporters and critics.

The move amounted to a historic rebuke for a president who had used the social-networking site to fuel his rise to political prominence.

Twitter has been Trump's primary communication tool to push policies, drive news cycles, fire officials, dispense falsehoods, savage opponents and praise allies.

A defiant Trump lashed out in response late Friday, accusing Twitter in a statement of having "coordinated with the Democrats and the Radical Left" to remove his account. He threatened regulation, promising a "big announcement" to come, and said he is looking "at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future!"

The official account for the presidency, @POTUS, also tweeted that message, although the posts were quickly taken down by Twitter.

Twitter had resisted taking action against Trump for years, even as critics called on the company to suspend him, arguing that a world leader should be able to speak to his or her citizens unfettered. But Trump's escalating tweets casting doubt on the 2020 election — and the riot at the US Capitol his comments helped inspire — led the company to reverse course.

Twitter specifically raised the potential that Trump's recent tweets could mobilise his supporters to commit acts of violence around President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, an analysis that experts saw as a major expansion in the company's approach to moderating harmful content online. Its action meant Trump's tweets disappeared from the site, removing the catalogue of his thoughts except for those preserved by researchers and other documentarians.

Glorification of violence

The move was especially remarkable for a company that once called itself "the free speech wing of the free speech party." Many observers noted that this most aggressive enforcement action in Twitter's history came in the week that political power shifted decisively in Washington, toward Democrats who long have demanded greater policing of hate speech and violent talk on social media - and away from a president and party who long had made effective use of the more free-wheeling policies of the past.

"It took blood and glass in the halls of Congress — and a change in the political winds — for the most powerful tech companies in the world to recognise, at the last possible moment, the profound threat of Donald Trump," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, a longtime critic of tech company policies.

Twitter cited two Trump tweets. One stated that the 75 million who voted for him were "American Patriots" who will "not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!" He then announced he would not go to Biden's swearing-in ceremony later this month.

In a blog post, the company argued the two messages violated its glorification of violence policy since they "could inspire others to replicate violent acts" that took place at the US Capitol on Wednesday.

According to Twitter, his second tweet could be read by followers as an encouragement to commit violence during the inauguration, which "would be a 'safe,' target as he will not be attending."

In doing so, Twitter joined Facebook in punishing the president in the waning hours of his first term. Facebook said on Thursday its suspension is indefinite, lasting at least the next two weeks, citing a similar belief that the risks are "simply too great" at a moment of transition for the country.

Both tech giants previously joined Google-owned YouTube in removing or limiting access to Trump's posts, including a video he shared earlier this week that once against advanced widely disproved falsehoods about the validity of the 2020 vote.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Trump appeared to try to defy Twitter's ban by using @POTUS.

"We will not be SILENCED!" @POTUS tweeted before it was taken down. The president also charged that in a statement.

Twitter's punishment is the harshest judgment the site has at its disposal. It appeared to be the first time the company had ever taken such an action since instituting a broad policy around world leaders last year, illustrating the slow shift in Silicon Valley as the country's most popular, prominent platforms grew more comfortable in taking on Trump.

Explosive flash point

Facebook, for example, had its first of many furious internal debates over how to handle Trump in December 2015, when as a presidential candidate he posted a video in which he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the US. Many employees called it obvious hate speech, but top executives chose to defer, by creating an exemption for content they deemed "newsworthy."

The challenges kept coming as Trump's presidency and rhetoric brought to mainstream attention right-wing ideas once considered beyond the fringe of appropriate political rhetoric.

A particularly explosive flash point for both Twitter and Facebook came in May, when Trump called protesters after the killing of unarmed Black motorist George Floyd "THUGS" in social media posts. In response, Twitter opted to label Trump's tweet as harmful and hide it from public view - and Facebook petitioned for Trump to change his tone in private.

The shift within Silicon Valley began even before that as the coronavirus swept through the world last year, and the stakes of the rampant lies and misinformation on social media platforms were underscored by a rising body count as Trump and others denied the severity of the pandemic.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others all took action against viral falsehoods that were clearly contrary to science. Not long after, they dramatically stiffened policies against conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and the rise of dangerous armed groups, such as the Boogaloo, born of largely unrestricted online worlds.

As the national poll approached last fall, disinformation researchers, Democrats and civil rights activists demanded tougher action from tech companies whose platforms hosted and spread falsehoods. They gained some traction, but at a time when Trump and other Republicans were loudly claiming that they were being discriminated against by Silicon Valley, critics said it was not nearly enough.