A defiant Trump lashed out in response late Friday, accusing Twitter in a statement of having “coordinated with the Democrats and the Radical Left” to remove his account. He threatened regulation, promising a “big announcement” to come, and said he is looking “at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future!” The official account for the presidency, @POTUS, also tweeted that message, although the posts were quickly taken down by Twitter.
Twitter had resisted taking action against Trump for years, even as critics called on the company to suspend him, arguing that a world leader should be able to speak to his or her citizens unfettered. But Trump’s escalating tweets casting doubt on the 2020 election — and the riot at the U.S. Capitol his comments helped inspire — led the company to reverse course.
Twitter specifically raised the possibility that Trump’s recent tweets could mobilize his supporters to commit acts of violence around President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, an analysis that experts saw as a major expansion in the company’s approach to moderating harmful content online. Its action meant Trump’s tweets disappeared from the site, removing the catalogue of his thoughts except for those preserved by researchers and other documentarians.
The move was especially remarkable for a company that once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Many observers noted that this most aggressive enforcement action in Twitter’s history came in the week that political power shifted decisively in Washington, toward Democrats who long have demanded greater policing of hate speech and violent talk on social media — and away from a president and party who long had made effective use of the more freewheeling policies of the past.
“It took blood and glass in the halls of Congress — and a change in the political winds — for the most powerful tech companies in the world to recognize, at the last possible moment, the profound threat of Donald Trump,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a longtime critic of tech company policies.
Twitter cited two Trump tweets. One stated that the 75 million who voted for him were “American Patriots” who will “not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” He then announced he would not go to Biden’s swearing-in ceremony later this month.
In a blog post, the company said the two messages violated its policy against glorification of violence since they “could inspire others to replicate violent acts” that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. According to Twitter, his second tweet could be read by followers as an encouragement to commit violence during the inauguration, which “would be a ‘safe,’ target as he will not be attending.”
In doing so, Twitter joined Facebook in punishing the president in the waning hours of his first term. Facebook said Thursday its suspension is indefinite, lasting at least the next two weeks, citing a similar belief that the risks are “simply too great” at a moment of transition for the country. Both tech giants previously joined Google-owned YouTube in removing or limiting access to Trump’s posts, including a video he shared earlier this week that once again advanced widely disproved falsehoods about the validity of the 2020 vote.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Trump appeared to try to defy Twitter’s ban by using @POTUS, and later his @TeamTrump campaign account, both of which were suspended.
“We will not be SILENCED!” @POTUS tweeted before it was taken down. The president also charged that in a statement.
Twitter’s punishment is the harshest judgment the site has at its disposal. It appeared to be the first time the company had taken such an action since instituting a broad policy around world leaders last year, illustrating the slow shift in Silicon Valley as the country’s most popular, prominent platforms grew more comfortable in taking on Trump.
Facebook, for example, had its first of many furious internal debates over how to handle Trump in December 2015, when as a presidential candidate he posted a video in which he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Many employees called it obvious hate speech, but top executives chose to defer, by creating an exemption for content they deemed “newsworthy.”
The challenges kept coming as Trump’s presidency and rhetoric brought to mainstream attention right-wing ideas once considered beyond the fringe of appropriate political rhetoric. A particularly explosive flash point for both Twitter and Facebook came in May, when Trump called protesters after the killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd “THUGS” in social media posts. In response, Twitter opted to label Trump’s tweet as harmful and hide it from public view — and Facebook petitioned for Trump to change his tone in private.
The shift within Silicon Valley began even before that as the coronavirus swept through the world last year, and the stakes of the rampant lies and misinformation on social media platforms were underscored by a rising body count as Trump and others denied the severity of the pandemic. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others all took action against viral falsehoods that were clearly contrary to science. Not long after, they dramatically stiffened policies against conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and the rise of dangerous armed groups, such as the boogaloo, born of largely unrestricted online worlds.
As the national election approached last fall, disinformation researchers, Democrats and civil rights activists demanded tougher action from tech companies whose platforms hosted and spread falsehoods. They gained some traction, but at a time when Trump and other Republicans were loudly claiming that they were being discriminated against by Silicon Valley, critics said it was not nearly enough.
Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a civil rights group that has been pushing social media companies to police Trump’s behavior more aggressively, fretted on Friday that it took too long for Twitter and its peers to act given the president’s past missteps — and their potential to have touched off real-world violence.
“But kicking him off of Twitter, so he can’t spread disinformation and incite the public, is huge,” he said. “This is way too late, but I do not underestimate or undersell the significance of what this means moving forward without him having a direct line to reach an audience any time that he wanted to.”
In considering how his supporters might read and interpret his messages, Twitter also potentially opened the door for the company to take a more aggressive approach on other content, including tweets from political leaders in the future, experts said.
“That’s a standard that’s never existed,” said Alex Stamos, a former Facebook chief security officer, now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, a disinformation research group. “The ‘impact’ standard has never existed.”
Stamos added that Twitter’s action — and Facebook’s recent enforcement efforts — meant that “the right-wing social media ecosystem in America has been shattered.”
The move comes amid a wave of criticism from Democratic lawmakers and Twitter’s own employees, who demanded in a letter written this week that the company’s leaders permanently suspend Trump’s account. In an internal letter addressed to chief executive Jack Dorsey and his top executives viewed by The Washington Post, roughly 350 Twitter employees requested an investigation into the past several years of corporate actions that led to Twitter’s role in the riot.
“Despite our efforts to serve the public conversation, as Trump’s megaphone, we helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th,” the employees wrote. “We request an investigation into how our public policy decisions led to the amplification of serious anti-democratic threats. We must learn from our mistakes in order to avoid causing future harm.”
“We play an unprecedented role in civil society and the world’s eyes are upon us. Our decisions this week will cement our place in history, for better or worse,” the employees added.
In a statement earlier Friday, Twitter spokesperson Brandon Borrman wrote, “Twitter encourages an open dialogue between our leadership and employees, and we welcome our employees expressing their thoughts and concerns in whichever manner feels right to them.”
The letter from the Twitter employees is addressed to “Staff,” company lingo for C-suite executives who report directly to Dorsey, including Vijaya Gadde, who leads the company’s legal, policy, and trust and safety divisions. During a virtual meeting on Friday afternoon, Dorsey and Gadde shared their thoughts on Twitter’s response, according to an employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Silicon Valley also took fresh aim Friday at a bevy of other sites and services where Trump’s supporters have congregated. That includes the new social media service Parler, which became popular with the president’s allies in the wake of the 2020 election.
Amid a flood of misinformation — and threats of violence in the wake of the Capitol riot — Google on Friday removed the app from its hub for downloads, called the Play Store. Apple also warned Parler that it could be removed from its App Store, the sole portal through which iPhone and iPad users can obtain such software, if it didn’t remove posts inciting violence and put in place a stronger content moderation system, according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Parler prides itself on only loosely policing posts on its site, saying it removes only what is illegal or not protected by the First Amendment. After the attack on the Capitol this week, posts on the site voiced support for the rioters and calls to keep fighting. Trump, however, does not currently have an account on Parler.
Parler chief executive John Matze appeared to address the Apple news on his Parler page Friday, writing “We will not cave to pressure from anti-competitive actors!”
Twitter’s move did cause unease in another quarter: Researchers have long complained that when the company suspends a user, valuable records of online conversations essentially vanish into thin air, making it nearly impossible to later reconstruct them — something particularly consequential when a platform is the primary means of communication for a U.S. president.
“It has implications from a historical point of view,” said Darren Linvill, lead researcher for the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub. “If you are the national conversation, they just sucked a big part of the national conversation away.”
Rachel Lerman and Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.
Twitter employees wrote their letter Wednesday. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said they wrote it Friday.