Earlier this week, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all blocked President Trump's access to their platforms after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, egged on and planned by Trump. This is the first time in history that a sitting president has been deplatformed. The ban on Twitter became permanent today.
Facebook, however, announced that its suspension would last 13 days, until the inauguration of Joe Biden - because Trump had "used [its] platform to incite violent insurrection." It's significant that Facebook acknowledged Trump "provoked violence" using its platform, and that it took the strongest action platforms have for stopping the spread of dangerous content (aside from banning accounts permanently).
Facebook has been prevaricating about Trump for a couple of years now, and seems to have finally acknowledged the rot. It has done this at a convenient time, though; with only 14 days before Trump's term expires, his ability to respond and do something drastic like revoking section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is essentially gone.
In the past he has threatened all manner of actions to cripple Facebook or Twitter, or both, when they've angered him, and moved to break TikTok up in America for perceived slights. If Facebook wanted to solve the problem and deplatform him temporarily or permanently, the only time to do it would be after he's lost the ability to retaliate.
Deplatforming works. It works to curb the spread of dangerous misinformation by muffling the most influential voices that take content from the fringes of 4chan to the mainstream. It does not stop conspiracies or violent plots or civil unrest from forming at all - but it does stop their instant amplification to 88 million followers.
But this action has been too long in the offing. So much damage has been done in the meantime.
The President has been enthusiastically spreading conspiracy theories and inciting dangerous behaviour on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter now since 2016. It's not just that he muses injecting bleach might cure COVID-19, or tweets anti-mask conspiracies originating with QAnon (which he has done). It's not the little things - it's that he incites division and violence among his millions of followers.
He has spent much of his term posting to Facebook and Twitter that journalists are the "enemy of the people" - or that America is "at war" with the "CORRUPT MEDIA" - and celebrating violence against journalists. He even posted a YouTube video of him body slamming someone with a CNN logo for a face.
Is it any wonder that Trump supporters have printed T-Shirts with "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required" emblazoned across them, or that violent attacks against US reporters have surged in the last couple of years?
Similarly, the insurrection at the US Capitol should come as no surprise, given that Trump has been sowing doubt among his followers about the democratic process and vote-by-mail since 2019. Perhaps it was a backup plan in case he lost the election: if you undermine people's confidence in democracy and incite them to overthrow it, you could perhaps stay in power forever.
Whatever the motivation, after he lost the election in November he ramped up his social media campaign and posted a fusillade of tweets about "electoral fraud" and "dead voters", calling on his followers to rally on the streets and "#StopTheSteal".
When January 6 arrived and Congress convened to certify the election of Joe Biden, he simply dropped a match on the stack of kindling he'd been accumulating for months on Facebook and Twitter. It's not a surprise that the inevitable happened and violence erupted again among his followers. It's surprising that the platforms have been prevaricating for so long about how to prevent it.
Facebook had previously excused his behaviour and treated him as "special", letting him post divisive rhetoric and conspiracy theories with the occasional warning sticker, because he is the President. Mark Zuckerberg publicly defended this with broad platitudes about freedom of speech. "We believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech," he said. This is all very well, until it isn't - and someone gets shot in the resulting siege.
At a deeper level, Facebook has resisted flagging Trump's content or removing content for the same reason that it refuses to consistently fact-check political ads or viral misinformation: it doesn't want to be seen as a publisher. It doesn't want to be responsible for what gains traction on its platform. It wants to be seen as the neutral third party, an innocent carrier like the mail service, not the most powerful publisher on Earth.
In America, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have the protection of section 230 specifically because they are not seen as publishers. This is why Trump threatened to remove it whenever Twitter or Facebook upset him (and when he had the power to table it).
It has taken an actual insurrection at the US Capitol building for social media platforms to acknowledge that Trump uses their platforms to incite violence, and to do something about it.
- Belinda Barnet is a senior lecturer in media and communications at Swinburne University.