Six days into the optimistically dubbed “New Year,” the sitting President of the United States spurred a violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol Building in an effort to prevent the certification of an election he obviously lost. Anyone who had paid even a fraction of attention to the President’s narcissistic patterns of behavior and growing desperation could not reasonably pretend to be shocked; my fifth grade GirlTech diary was more confidential than Trump’s plans to subvert the election, which were brayed across his Twitter feed with escalating force since the results began to arrive.
“We won the Presidential election, by a lot. FIGHT FOR IT,” Trump tweeted on Friday Dec. 18th.
The next day, he locked in the specifics: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” (An all-too-rare case of understatement from the Donald).
Now that his words have spawned horrific, unimaginable actions, which shook the foundations of our democracy and left at least five people dead, this same platform has hastily banned Trump from using their services again—but is preventing a second insurrection, after enabling a first, really the bar for heroism in the U.S.A.?
Twitter played a patient host to Trump’s constant litany of baseless accusations and incendiary claims for the past four years. As a private company in a capitalist society, they prioritized the emerging prominence of their platform in politics and responded only to overwhelming public backlash in their interference.
Who could forget the President’s cries to consider our free press “an enemy of the people” or his deranged, all-caps rampage against Iranian President Rouhani to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN”? As it turned out, everyone was capable of forgetting, given two weeks and another several crises. Twitter needn’t worry about the brewing domestic and international disasters Trump was stoking on their website, because they would not be laid at their door.
Now, with only twelve days before Trump is—hopefully—confined to the annals of history (or better yet, an orange jumpsuit), Twitter is swaggering onto center stage to accept praise and acclaim for “standing up” to Trump at last. While I, with the rest of rational America, am grateful for the sudden silence, I’m not so eager to forget who held the microphone for so long in the first place.
The Trump administration—only the second U.S. Presidential administration with access to social media—pioneered an entirely new role for these platforms in global politics. For the first time, the American public was receiving a President’s unfiltered thoughts on everything from international policy to the Oscars in real time, often at bizarre hours of the morning and night. No speechwriters, no teleprompter: just stubby fingers on a cell phone screen somewhere in the bowels of the White House projecting the inner monologue of a despot in decline from sea to shining sea.
In fact, though Trump could hardly be called camera shy, Twitter was indisputably his preferred method of communication with his supporters. Between July 20, 2020, and January 8, 2021, Trump was Tweeting an average of 34.8 times per day, a staggering number for a president in the midst of a devastating pandemic (of the 729 Tweets Trump squeezed in since November 3, not one addressed the steeply rising COVID death toll).
The appeal of Twitter as a means of communication is easily identifiable: through a constant barrage of messages, Trump could access his followers with an immediacy that belied the urgency he was trying to convey. This allowed his supporters to interact with him and organize with one another on an individual and collective basis; and, most importantly, Trump could hover just at the edge of the darker, conspiracy-centered corners of the Internet, alluding to and remaining just shy of participating in other groups of web-citizens who coalesced behind his “cause.”
I need not reiterate the idiocy, bigotry, and cruelty of the Tweets Trump wrote during his time in office, or the real-world and online response they accrued. Suffice it to say, however, that at some point in the last four years, the Tweets traipsed far beyond the realm of civic responsibility — the line could have been drawn long before last week.
In fairness, Twitter’s execs have experienced some criticism for this decision, even so late in the game. Angela Merkel, the current Prime Minister of Germany, has expressed the opinion through her chief spokesman, Steffan Seibert, that governments, not private companies, should decide on any limitations of freedom of speech.
But Trump’s fundamental right to be heard has not been revoked. In fact, just like every President before him, Trump still stands — well, leans — behind the bully pulpit, guaranteeing him national media coverage and attention at any time he likes. By virtue of being the president, anything he says remains newsworthy, although the news has had little to report. His fundamental right to free speech, which arguably does not extend to incendiary speech in the first place, has not been threatened in the least: it’s only the privilege of posting on his preferred and private platform that has been taken away. In a land where corporations have more rights than some people, participating in a private company’s online forum has always been a privilege that could have been revoked at any time.
While of course I think the ban at this point was warranted, a ban today cannot change the damage done earlier this month or all the months before. If Twitter does, as it seems, prize the prominence it can hold as a player in global politics, this ban may be the first baby step in its path to managing this responsibility—but I know I am not alone in hoping they will step more preemptively in the future to protect the institutions it is joining, rather than playing a mindless host to any misinformation and mayhem its users want it to project.