Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that the social media giant is banning President Trump indefinitely, marking a dramatic escalation of the conflict between Silicon Valley and the White House after Trump weaponized the Web to help stoke a riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Facebook’s suspension marked the most aggressive penalty that any social media company has meted out to Trump over his four-year term, a period in which he has repeatedly peddled falsehoods, attacked critics and spread divisive rhetoric online. Twitter on Wednesday evening also suspended Trump for 12 hours, but the company’s first-ever blockade lifted Thursday morning. By evening, Trump resumed tweeting — sharing a video that acknowledged the “new administration” soon to be inaugurated.
The tech giants each took the rare aggressive steps after a violent mob stormed the House and Senate Wednesday, forcing lawmakers into a lockdown and briefly interrupting their formal process to certify Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. In failing to act until after the deadly riot occurred, Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube have faced sharp criticism saying they should have done more, and sooner, to stop Trump from helping provoke the situation.
“While I’m pleased to see social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube take long-belated steps to address the President’s sustained misuse of their platforms to sow discord and violence, these isolated actions are both too late and not nearly enough,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement. “Disinformation and extremism researchers have for years pointed to broader network-based exploitation of these platforms.”
Critics also noted that the moves by tech companies appeared politically expedient, coming as Democrats take full control of Congress and Trump prepares to depart the White House in 13 days.
“It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destructive behavior was the same day that they learned Democrats would chair all the Congressional committees that oversee them,” tweeted Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s former communications director.
At the outset of Trump’s term, Facebook and Twitter chose to make exceptions for the speech of public figures, allowing them to use troubling language that would otherwise violate their policies on hate speech and harassment. Those key decisions — made in the name of newsworthiness — enabled Trump and his allies to push the boundaries of political discourse online, helping him to build a powerful online movement and amass more than 88 million Twitter followers and more than 35 million on Facebook. Some of those supporters have ties to extreme far-right groups and conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and flashed their insignia during Wednesday’s riot.
Trump has weaponized that audience repeatedly in the months leading up to the presidential election and its aftermath, peddling falsehoods that promote the idea that there has been rampant voter fraud. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at times have taken action in response, but their attempts to label the president’s tweets as erroneous have largely not stopped their viral spread — or toned down the sort of political tensions that spilled out into public view this week.
Even though Facebook suspended Trump on Thursday, pro-Trump pages and groups with tens of thousands of members — including one, called “Joe Biden is not my president,” which is hidden from public view — quickly mobilized in support. Some Facebook users blamed the Capitol riot on “antifa,” echoing Trump’s erroneous contention that left-leaning antagonists stoked the violence.
Facebook has cracked down on some of the most pervasive and violent conspiracy theories, including QAnon, and groups including the Proud Boys, a far-right group with ties to white nationalism. The social media company’s belated efforts also have had the effect of pushing many of the groups’ leaders to alternative social platforms such as Parler, where Trump supporters continued to make violent threats.
“He’s part of a much larger system of disinformation,” said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “And as a result, taking action against Trump is symbolic in some ways, but unless they consistently apply these rules to media manipulators and disinformers, this is going to keep happening.”
She pointed out that in the days leading up the rally, the possibility of violence was clear enough from the calls for civil war being posted on far-right platforms such as Gab, 8kun, and Parler. Trump used his megaphone to repeatedly claim the election was stolen, teeing up people’s rage and anger over his conspiracies.
The seeds of that choice were planted for Facebook as far back as 2015, when the company was confronted with then-candidate Trump’s hateful comments about immigrants and Muslims during the campaign. Executives determined the comment was hate speech, The Post previously reported, and debated several courses of action, including banning Trump at the time or even weakening the site’s hate speech rules across the board.
Ultimately, the executives codified their exception into a newsworthiness policy that gave broad latitude to problematic speech from populist figures around the world. Twitter followed suit with a similar policy.
As Trump’s presidency got underway, it was clear that was a complex decision. Trump drew an online movement of passionate supporters, some of whom were white nationalists and conspiracy theorists who pushed ideas and memes in his direction. Trump has retweeted QAnon-affiliated accounts more than 250 times since taking office, according to left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters. He has also appeared to encourage violence, including his post this spring that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Then Trump revved up his baseless campaign claiming election fraud, first by tweeting about mail-in ballots and more recently saying the election was stolen.
Twitter and Facebook both responded by attaching warning labels that the claims were disputed, and in Twitter’s case, blocking the visibility of dozens of posts. In the days after the election, Twitter blocked the visibility of dozens of tweets and disabled the ability to retweet them, along with several hundred posts from other public figures.
On Wednesday, Twitter punished Trump over a series of tweets that sought to cast doubt over the 2020 presidential race. One included a video in which Trump spread disinformation about the election’s outcome even as he told rioters to leave the House and Senate at a time when lawmakers had started the process of certifying Biden as the next president. Another tweet attributed the violent mob’s actions to the widely disproved claim that votes had been “stripped away from great patriots.”
Twitter required Trump to delete the tweets to obtain access to his account, but it made clear it plans to escalate its enforcement efforts and suspend the president permanently if he continues to break its rules.
Facebook and its photo-sharing service, Instagram, then suspended Trump from posting over 24 hours starting Wednesday evening, and the tech giant joined Twitter and YouTube in taking down the president’s earlier video.
E-commerce service Shopify took down online stores run by the Trump Organization and Trump campaign for violating its policy against promoting violence. Amazon-owned video service Twitch disabled Trump’s account indefinitely. Short-form video app TikTok said it would remove several of his speeches for violating its misinformation policy.
Facebook also said it would remove harmful content posted by other users promoting similar riots at the U.S. Capitol before a day later extending its suspension indefinitely.
Throughout Wednesday, Facebook executives struggled with the decision, particularly because Trump told his supporters to stand down in the video — even as he used inflammatory language, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversations.
The threat of further violence — and Trump’s history in using social media to spread misinformation — prompted a wide array of critics including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League to call on Silicon Valley to suspend the president outright in the final days of his first and only term. Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters took to alternative social media platforms, including Parler, to tout their support for the riots and call for further bloodshed.