An overwhelming majority of tech experts surveyed by the Washington Post said that social media companies were correct to suspend former President Donald J. Trump’s accounts after the failed putsch at the U.S. Capitol. That includes me: while the most best vaccine for a disinformation virus is to inoculate people with truth, preventing toxic lies designed to undermine democracy itself from infecting a population is more effective from stopping exposure. Banning the most mendacious president in US history led to a precipitous drop in misinformation about fraud. That tells us something about how this direct lines to the eyes of Americans was driving a mass delusion unlike any we’ve seen in a century.
It’s critical to note that – unlike millions of people around the world who get censored or banned for violating more stricter standards for speech in authoritarian countries – President Trump was hardly silenced in his final days in office. At any moment of any day, a President can tell the Press Secretary to alert news outlets, walk out of the Oval Office, and stream it on the White House website. He (or she) can sit for interviews, address the nation, or make a speech. What’s tragic is that tech companies moved far faster to de-platform a President who promoted and incited an insurrection on their platforms to overturn the election than the Members of Congress who his partisans targeted for seditious violence. (President Trump’s impeachment trial officially began yesterday.)
This ban was late in coming, however, and poorly communicated. After President Trump conducted a year-long disinformation on their platforms promoting a “Big Lie” about the prevalence of widespread election fraud and undermining faith in the integrity of mail-in ballots, he abused his power to not only seek to overturn the results of the election in a soft coup but promote and incite an insurrection – and then glorified the seditious violence that resulted.
Tech companies bet on labels to contain lies on their platforms, and while there were benefits to the approach, labels were utterly insufficient to prevent verified politicians and far-right media outlets from disinforming tens of millions of people on their platforms.
After January 6, the connection between radicalization and belief in conspiracies from personalized propaganda online from official disinformation and offline action has never been clearer, which is one reason Facebook and Twitter cited the risk of further violence when they took their unprecedented action.
These tech companies know they erred: after a violent insurrection fueled by far-right disinformation on its platform at the U.S. Capitol, Facebook put some accounts in a limited “epistemic quarantine” on Inauguration Day — exactly as I called on them to do long ago. This is precisely how tech companies should approach “super-spreaders” of viral disinformation about vaccines or climate change or future elections in the months ahead: deny freedom of reach to those who would undermine public health or democracy itself.
The belated actions of the tech companies to remove updates and then finally suspend access after President Trump spent years spreading civic disinformation, medical misinformation, hatred towards the press, and active delegitimization of the press, judiciary, scientists, and any other entity that checked his power or informed the public of his corruption or incompetence opens them to valid critiques of political opportunism were welcome. Any moral victory is mitigated by the decision’s timing, coming right as power moved between parties, and how slow CEOs were to act on Trump’s lies about fraud back in 2016 and 2017.
When Trump used Twitter and Facebook to disinform tens of millions of Americans after the election, spreading a Big Lie as everyone who studies autocrats predicted, the executives waited for months until after their hands were forced by the insurrection to deplatform him.
If they’d treated the Trump regime like a far-right government in another country starting in November 2016 and put in country-specific policies to contain sharing and spread of lies about fraud and results, they’d get more credit.
But they didn’t, perhaps concerned about their record of abusing their market power in anti-competitive ways opened them to anti-trust action, or that new data protection laws might eviscerate business models based upon on surveillance capitalism and deregulation.
In the aftermath, we only have more questions about why executives didn’t act earlier, whether they regret it, how and when the Santa Clara Principles for content moderation will be implemented, and whether we should expect other world leaders or elected officials to lose access if they do something similar.
It would be wise for all tech companies to be more transparent about disinformation actions, breaking out granular data for when and how world leaders, governments, and political parties violated a given health or civic integrity on their transparency websites, and all enforcement actions taken. That approach is the only strategy that will insulate them against the inevitable bad faith cries of ideologically motivated censorship. Lying more won’t work.
Now that Facebook and Twitter have banned a sitting autocratic ruler of a far-right regime after he lied and incited seditious violence and insurrection to overturn an election and glorified it on their platforms, is there now a new global red line for governments weaponizing social media?
We have to hope they now understand that they’re the front lines in a struggle over the truth between democracies, authoritarian nations, and pre-fascist movements, and act accordingly. History will not be kind to executives who fail to be braver now that stakes are clearer.