Silicon Valley tries to sweep Donald Trump under the rug.
At 6:21 PM Eastern Time on January 8th, 2021, Twitter finally did it. “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” With those thirty words, the Silicon Valley company summarily removed the President of the United States’s preferred mechanism for reaching his 80+ million followers, and arguably one of his key tools to govern the country.
But wait! What about the official @POTUS account? Indeed, the President quickly availed himself of it to announce he would be taking action against the censors at Twitter- before the series of tweets he issued were summarily deleted. “Trump is just working his way through the accounts he has access to and getting them suspended,” tweeted Philip Bump, a correspondent for The Washington Post. “Now, @TeamTrump, which was enthusiastic about spreading misinformation anyway.” He even tried a staffer’s account. One twitter user wondered, “How long until he’s tweeting from @TrumpDoral?”, a reference to the corporate account for one of the President’s properties that was made famous in 2019 for its record of infestation with bed bugs and other creepy crawlies.
And so continued what may well come to be known as The Great Cancellation of 2021– as Silicon Valley companies removed or limited Trump’s access to a host of services following the violent insurrection he incited on Capitol Hill:
- Reddit banned the subreddit forum r/DonaldTrump, Axios media reporter Sara Fischer reported on Friday morning, “one of the company’s largest political communities dedicated to support for President Trump.”
- Twitch disabled Trump’s channel following the insurrection on Capitol Hill.
- Snapchat locked the President’s account indefinitely.
- Apple and Google told Parler, the social media network favored by far right extremists and other supporters of the President, that it must start moderating its content, while Google delisted from its Play store.
- Discord banned TheDonald server “due to its overt connection to an online forum used to incite violence, plan an armed insurrection in the United States, and spread harmful misinformation related to 2020 U.S. election fraud”, the company said in a new statement.
- Shopify took down online stores affiliated with President Trump that sold “Make America Great Again” hats and merchandise, on the grounds that Trump violated its policy against promoting or supporting violence.
- YouTube announced it would restrict channels posting videos that support the President’s false claims about the election, including Trump’s channel.
And of course all of these acts followed a move by Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday his company company would lock Trump’s accounts through Inauguration Day because “the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
To be certain, restricting Donald Trump’s ability to incite violence following Wednesday’s attack on the United States Capitol is not only in the national interest, it is well within the rights of private companies whose terms of service permit them almost total discretion as to what transpires on their platforms. It is not, as the President and his supporters claim, a matter of free speech or the First Amendment. “The platforms should have a heavy bias in favor of leaving political leaders’ speech up,” argues Jameel Jaffer, Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “Not because platforms owe this to political leaders, but because they owe it to the public… But there are limits to this principle. A political leader who uses his account to incite imminent violence is causing harms that can’t be countered by speech and can’t be undone by a future election.” Indeed, the five dead on Capitol Hill are proof enough of the permanent dangers, which could have been far worse if the bombs and molotov cocktails found at the scene had detonated.
No matter the harms averted, the President’s supporters will no doubt be enraged, and the President himself incandescent. They were already fairly exercised about the idea of “cancel culture”- witness the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, campaigning against it last month in Georgia. And tonight’s events will fit squarely in tired narratives from folks like Senator Ted Cruz and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson about censorship by Big Tech, and surely lead to another disingenuous, uninformed round of Republican calls to end Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms from liability for content posted by users. Precisely because it checks so many boxes, the Great Cancellation will itself cause a substantial furor, and will therefore further inflame the most dangerous of the President’s supporters. It will satisfy a number of conspiracy theories, including QAnon, which posits such bans are proof of its claims.
Therefore in the short term, it is likely to make the country less safe, as already enraged extremists plot inevitable reprisals. It will also invite danger to the executives of the tech platforms themselves, an unfortunate effect of having waited so long to confront a bully. The sad reality is that no matter how hard Silicon Valley tries to sweep Donald Trump under the rug, the hatreds he fomented are still alive across its platforms. We’ll be contending with Trump’s disciples long after the Great Cancellation is forgotten- a challenge that is greatly compounded by the unwillingness of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Susan Wojcicki to act before today. No matter how hard they try to cancel Trump, they own whatever comes next.
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 & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.