The attempts to dress up their actions as part of a coherent and deliberate decision-making structure were trying to mask an uncomfortable truth about our most important speech forums: Platforms can and will do what they like. This week a small handful of extremely powerful tech executives slowly tiptoed toward the edge, egging one another on, being pushed by commentators and employees, until they agreed to hold hands and jump. This was a display of awesome power, not an acknowledgment of culpability. These were more editorial and business decisions taken under fire than the neutral application of prior guidelines. A tiny group of people in Silicon Valley are defining modern discourse, ostensibly establishing a Twilight Zone where the rules are something between democratic governance and journalism, but they’re doing it on the fly in ways that suit them.
In two weeks, Trump will be out of power, but platforms won’t be. They should be forced to live up to the sentiments in their fig-leaf rationales.
Platforms tied themselves in knots this week trying to tell the first story and make their actions seem consistent with the idea that they were simply making a neutral call based on their existing policies. In one sense, they’re right to say their actions were consistent with the rules they’ve always had. A good argument can be made—indeed, I have made it in The Atlantic—that democracy requires voters to know who their candidates really are and what they believe, even (or, perhaps, especially) when those beliefs are abhorrent. So platforms have long treated the president differently from other users on the grounds that what he says is inherently newsworthy and in the public interest for people to know about even if it violates their rules.
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But every platform left a “break glass” escape in the case of incitement to violence. Speech always has to be evaluated in context, and the context this week could not be ignored. The president incited insurrection at the U.S. Capitol resulting in at least five deaths, and it’s possible more violence is yet to come. For Mark Zuckerberg, Trump’s use of Facebook to condone, rather than condemn, the riots led Zuckerberg to believe the risks of continuing to allow the president to post were too high. The decision wasn’t clear-cut, but “on balance,” another Facebook executive said, the president was deemed to be contributing to, rather than diminishing, the threat of ongoing violence. The company engaged in a careful and principled balancing test, considering all relevant factors.
Facebook’s decision backed Twitter into a corner. Twitter had originally locked Trump’s account for 12 hours, even as calls for the company to ban him entirely grew louder. When the president got his handle back, he shot off some fairly anodyne tweets celebrating his supporters and announcing that he wouldn’t be attending Joe Biden’s inauguration, posts that seemed entirely within the typical Trump genre. Not so, said Twitter in a long and detailed blog post announcing the account’s permanent suspension. The context of these tweets and “specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter” meant that they amounted to a glorification of violence. Twitter’s rules have penumbras, apparently, and Trump’s dog whistles to his followers now fall within them.