By Aaron Shuchman
New York City, New York
President Donald Trump’s social media use grew increasingly dangerous and destructive in the final days of his presidency, culminating in the Capitol insurrection on January 6 during the counting of the 2020 presidential election’s electoral college votes. Since the November 3 election, the former president used his considerable following on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to spread lies and conspiracy theories surrounding his loss in the election, ranging from unfounded allegations against the manufacturer of voting machines to criticizing members of his own party who certified President Joe Biden as the winner in their states. While the former president’s actions on social media are inexcusable, and likely played a significant role in inciting the insurrection and the Capitol, the rules governing major social platforms are never applied on a consistent basis, and the failure of major technology companies to fairly and uniformly enforce their content rules ultimately plays into the hands of people like Trump.
The key behind Trump’s social ban is the idea that his posts incited violence. The Capitol riot was not the first time his tweets were flagged or taken down, as a number of his tweets from over the summer regarding protests were as well. The claim that the president’s social media use incited violence is a fair one, as he claimed over the summer that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in reference to protests, and he posted several videos during and after the Capitol insurrection where he expressed his love and gratitude to the protestors. The banning of the former president, without context of other applications of platforms’ rules, is perfectly justifiable and was likely in the interest of public safety. However, while Trump’s tweets certainly crossed the line of acceptable content for the internet, major social platforms don’t enforce these rules equally. Ayatollah Ali Khameini of Iran has used his Twitter account to call for violence against Israel and the United States, and yet his account has gone unflagged and unimpeded. Over the summer, writers and intellectuals like Vicky Osterweil came out in support of violence and looting during the widespread protests following the death of George Floyd, and yet they did not have action taken against them. To be clear, it is the job of social platforms to remove content that poses a risk of harm or violence, but until they begin to enforce these rules and regulations equally, without regard for ideology or the profile of the person inciting or supporting violence, bad actors like Trump will only have more ammunition in their crusades.
A byproduct of Trump’s social media ban and his role in the Capitol insurrection was the deplatforming of the social media app Parler, which is very popular among conservative users who feel that apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter harbor bias against conservatism. In the aftermath of law enforcement investigations that revealed that many of the Capitol rioters utilized Parler to plan their attacks, Apple and Google Play removed it from their app stores, and Amazon Web Services, which had hosted the servers for Parler, canceled their contract, meaning that Parler went totally offline. Although the usage of Parler to plan violent acts is deplorable, it is not the only social media app that has been used to plan or endorse violence. Parler is unique in that its content is largely unmoderated, meaning that violent or offensive posts are not always taken down. Although Parler’s role in organizing the Capitol insurrection is clear, Twitter and Facebook were similarly used to organize the Capitol violence as well as violence over the summer of 2020. While these platforms are far larger than Parler, they are equally, if not more responsible, for the Capitol violence and the summer violence, by the standard that was applied to Parler to justify its removal. The usage of an application to organize violence does not mean the app should simply cease to exist. If Apple, Google and Amazon were serious about preventing violence, they would deplatform Facebook and Twitter as well.