Jan 7, 2021 - Technology

Social media platforms muzzle Trump after Capitol melee

Illustration of phone with Trump’s twitter behind caution tape

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat all took their strongest actions yet to block President Trump after his messages egged on misinformation-fueled mobs storming the Capitol Wednesday.

Yes, but: Many critics say the social media companies bear some responsibility for the day's chaos for not reining in Trump sooner and harder — and the brief suspensions fell short of calls for the networks to permanently ban Trump's account for repeated rule violations.

Driving the news:

  • Trump's comments praising the crowd, and repeating false claims of a stolen election, initially received labels from Twitter and Facebook for containing disputed information about election fraud. But by midday executives at both social media companies were discussing stronger actions.
  • In the end, Twitter removed three posts from the president, including a video in which he urged rioters to "go home" but also told them, "We love you, you're special" and once more falsely claimed he'd won the election in "a landslide." Twitter also locked Trump's account until the offending tweets were permanently removed and banned him from posting for 12 hours.
  • Axios is told the decision was made using Twitter's standard decision-making process which is headed by Vijaya Gadde, the company's Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety lead.
  • Facebook and YouTube also took down the video, with Facebook also banning Trump from posting for 24 hours.
  • Snapchat and Instagram locked Trump's account.

Between the lines: The platforms' actions did belatedly silence the President, as social media remains his president's preferred method of communication. Indeed, his only public response to Wednesday's events were the posts he made on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — each of which reached a wide audience before they were removed.

Yes, but: The services' many critics saw the moves as "too little, too late," and outside groups as well as people inside the companies pressed more strongly than ever for a complete ban.

At Facebook, employees railed on the company's internal network about the company's lack of action.

  • After 4 p.m. PT, Mark Zuckerberg, in an internal message, said Facebook was "treating this situation as an emergency" and implementing additional measures to keep people safe.
  • Roughly an hour later, the company announced its 24-hour ban on Trump. But that didn't quell the dissent.
  • "I don’t think anything would meet employee expectations short of a permanent account deletion," one Facebook employee told me.

What they're saying: A complete ban on Trump is what many outside the company were seeking as well.

  • Former Facebook security executive Alex Stamos: "There have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance. Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off."
  • Color Of Change president Rashad Robinson: "Enough is enough. It's time for Facebook and Twitter to kick Trump off their platforms," tweeted.
  • Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt: "Social media companies should suspend his accounts ASAP as they would do for anyone else advocating disinformation and promoting violence. It’s time."

The big picture: Increased echoes of online conspiracies by the president, prominent Republican officials and right-wing media in recent weeks helped fuel calls for violence and protest leading to Wednesday's historic events, misinformation experts tell Axios.

  • The President's supporters that stormed the Capitol had been planning to do so online for weeks, Buzzfeed News reports.
  • While some of the plotting occurred on fringe forums like 8kun and TheDonald.win, other plans were created in the open on groups on Facebook.
  • Facebook on Tuesday finally took down the Red State Secession group, one of the places where people were actively planning Wednesday's actions.

Be smart: "The chaos that unfolded at the Capitol was inevitable," says Katy Byron, a misinformation expert and head of MediaWise, a digital literacy initiative at Poynter.

  • Since the November vote, the President and his allies have frequently touted conspiracy theories to pressure officials into overturning the election result. During the president's leaked call with Georgia's Secretary of State earlier this week, for example, he cited QAnon conspiracy theories about missing ballots.
  • "The president bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories that have led to this point," said Republican Sen. Richard Burr in a statement Wednesday evening.

What's next: The anger within Facebook is real, and is likely to show itself at a companywide meeting Thursday. One Facebook employee told me the internal mood has curdled to the point where surprising numbers inside the company are rooting for a severe regulatory backlash — or even a breakup.

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