If you had gone to view Donald Trump’s Twitter profile before Jan. 8, you would have seen his almost 60,000 tweets, along with a follower count of more than 88 million. However, after that Friday, all that remains of his profile is a blank page that reads “Account suspended.”
Considering former President Trump’s active usage on the platform, many questions have been raised as to why Twitter would permanently ban his account and if they should be allowed to do so in terms of free speech. The shutting down of his account has cut off one of his most frequently used methods of directly speaking to the public.
Twitter itself tweeted that after a close review of his account and the surrounding context of the insurrection, it had suspended his account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” according to their Glorification of Violence policy. In a blog post, the company specifically pointed to two tweets – one in which Trump called his voters “patriots,” and another announcing that he would not attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Twitter explained that the tweets “must be read in the context of broader events,” referring to the riots on Jan. 6 that took place when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Members of Congress who were present went into lockdown, and bombs were also found on the scene. Following those events, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for the second time, a first for any president.
The two tweets that incited the Capitol riots were the final nail in the coffin of Trump’s presidency. They marked the end of four years in which he used Twitter to spread messages that often included misinformation and falsehoods. In the midst of Twitter’s decision, other platforms also limited or barred Trump, including Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitch and Reddit. The conservative app Parler was also removed from the App Store and Google Play Store.
To test the Twitter ban, Trump tweeted that “Twitter had gone further and further in banning free speech,” and that Twitter’s employees had “coordinated with the Democrats and the Radical Left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me.” That tweet disappeared instantly.
There’s more than just the inciting of violence that led Twitter to ban Trump. Business and pressure have a lot to do with it too, according to Medill associate professor and director of research Stephanie Edgerly.
“These are private spaces, so they have the absolute power to maintain their product as they best see fit,” Edgerly said. “What you really see after the Capitol storming is people saying, ‘Is it becoming a space for people to organize to overthrow the government?’ That becomes a business problem.”
Pressure began piling in from advertisers, lawmakers and Twitter’s own employees. The Capitol riots were the breaking point and a direct violent tie that Twitter could point to. That’s because Twitter and other platforms don’t want to be politically involved, Edgerly pointed out.
“They don’t want to be seen as political actors and given that we’re in the throes of a political election. They did not want to be seen as potentially censoring one campaign over another,” Edgerly said.
On the other hand, Twitter did take more preemptive action to address non-political disinformation.
“You can see them being much more comfortable operating in the health disinformation space. They were much more willing to take action in relation to COVID-19 disinformation even though COVID-19 has been politicized because this is a world health issue.”
For many years, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have proclaimed themselves to be defenders of free speech, refraining from touching the accounts of world leaders. Now with Twitter’s suspension, the company will have to deal with uncharted territory. That includes the reevaluation of the scope of suspension when it comes to other world leaders or prominent Trump supporters. The company has since banned lawyer Sidney Powell and Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump’s separate campaign account was also shut down.
Republicans are now looking to revoke legal protections for social media companies amid a heated debate about the decision.
Several experts believe that the suspension was too late and that the damage had already been done. Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said in The New York Times that Twitter’s banning of Trump “does not fix our politics or bring millions of Americans back to reality.” However, “it does make it significantly harder for disinformation to enter the mainstream,” Brooking said.
Even though the damage has been done, Twitter’s decision will set a future precedent for years to come. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the huge power of social media companies.
“We maybe think about social media as public forums, but we don’t have a right to be on Twitter,” Edgerly said. “They’re allowed to make choices that are best for their product whatever way they see fit.”
Thumbnail photo “Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.