The next president will use Twitter
For three years, eleven months and 17 days, Donald Trump was allowed to spread lies almost unhindered. Since taking office in January 2017, the US president has used social media to insult other heads of government, spread false claims, incite against minorities and incite his supporters. Exactly two weeks before Trump's elected successor Joe Biden takes power, Facebook and Twitter take away his most powerful propaganda tool: the two platforms lock the president out.
In several tweets and Facebook posts, Trump played down the violent mob that stormed the Capitol from Wednesday to Thursday night, repeated his lies about the alleged election fraud and told the intruders: "We love you. You are special." Even by Trump's standards, this represents a new level of contempt for democracy.
Twitter blocked three tweets that violated the platform's guidelines and asked Trump to permanently delete the posts himself. If he does, he should get his account back after twelve hours to think about it. If he refuses, the account will be frozen. Should Trump break the Twitter rules again, could @realDonaldTrump fall silent forever - and the president lose his most important stage: Even if some of his almost 89 million followers consist of bots and fake accounts, Trump reaches millions of people via Twitter. The fact that Twitter is now threatening to pull this oversized microphone from under his nose must put Trump in a rage and panic at the same time.
Facebook even went a step further. First, the platform removed a video of the president in which he spoke of a "holy landslide victory". Shortly thereafter, Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram locked Trump out for 24 hours because two of his posts violated the company's guidelines. Finally, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg spoke up personally: "We believe the risk of allowing the president to continue using our services during this time is simply too great," he wrote on Thursday afternoon. Therefore, the group will block Trump's accounts on Facebook and Instagram for an unlimited time, but at least for the next two weeks.
The world's largest communication platform throws out one of the most powerful people in the world. This is a process that just a few weeks ago seemed unthinkable. But at the time hardly anyone could imagine that radical Trump fanatics would overrun Congress and the president refuse to condemn the looting.
Digital hatred has analogous consequences
This is escalating a conflict that began in May. At that time, Twitter displayed warnings for the first time under Trump's tweets after he had openly threatened with violence. Over the coming months, the platforms attempted to resolve a dilemma to which they themselves had contributed. Twitter and especially Facebook had given the US president special rights: What Trump says is of public interest, so different rules apply to him. But with every lie Trump launched, it became more difficult to justify the kid gloves.
Because what is written on the Internet is reflected in the analog world - especially if the sender is the US President. Trump encouraged racists, violent militias, and dangerous conspiracy believers who armed, attacked political opponents, and planned to storm the Capitol. The mob organized itself online and finally took action, as Trump himself had announced: "Be there, it's going to be wild," he called on his supporters in December.
"That shows how nonsensical it is to believe that there is an online and an offline world," says Renée DiResta, who conducts research at the Stanford Internet Observatory. "Echo chambers in the network have very real effects." Law professor Danielle Citron, who has been advising Twitter on how to deal with hateful comments since 2009, sees it similarly. Now the time has come to shut down Trump's account, she writes. "He deliberately incited violence and caused chaos with his lies and threats." She has been telling Twitter boss Jack Dorsey and other employees for years. Now it is finally clear: "Enough is enough."
Employees of tech companies are also calling on the platforms to finally take more rigorous action. Dozens of Facebook employees are said to have appealed to Mark Zuckerberg to permanently block Trump's account - whereupon Facebook switched off the comments under the discussions in its internal forum.
But apparently the loud internal and external criticism still reached Zuckerberg. In two weeks Trump will lose his power. The platforms that helped him get into office in the first place show him the door. To prevent what happened on the night from Wednesday to Thursday, this step is three years, eleven months and 17 days too late.
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