The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter ban reveals that tech companies held keys to Trump’s power all along

A frenetic voice that had defined our times vanished, leaving behind an unaccustomed quiet on a historic day

(Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

During President Trump’s first impeachment, in December 2019, he tweeted more than 600 times — an average of 58 times a day. One of the last said, “Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG!”

During President Trump’s second impeachment, this week, he tweeted not once.

This shift, the silence, was momentous, made possible by Twitter’s decision Friday to ban him from the platform.

It may take historians years to grasp the full implications of the social media hurricane that Trump has conjured ever since he announced his intention to run for president 5½ years ago. But it took a single week, underscored by a single remarkable day, to appreciate what happened when that storm headed back out to sea.

This emerging new world — free from Trump’s tweets and the kaleidoscope of reactions to Trump’s tweets — has dawned suddenly, costing the president his ability to speak directly with 88 million followers, unfiltered by journalists or other traditional gatekeepers, with a few finger taps on his iPhone.

Trump’s ability to shape events has diminished dramatically since he was banned Friday night, at a politically perilous moment for him. Twitter’s decision removed an account that analysts said helped fuel the rage that consumed the U.S. Capitol last week and is threatening to flare again ahead of next week’s inauguration. But Twitter’s action also removed a bountiful source of ideas and impressions followed avidly by his supporters.

“This week will echo in history, though, as the moment when Trump was unable to shape reality in real time,” said Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Trump’s ability to use Twitter to command the public stage was rarely more clear than between Dec. 4, 2019, when the House Judiciary Committee opened its impeachment hearings, and Dec. 18, 2019, when the full House voted to impeach Trump for alleged abuse of power and obstruction of justice. He tweeted relentlessly throughout, defending his actions, mocking the Democrats and retweeting those who supported him.

None of that happened in this week’s fast-forward impeachment process. Trump had no account from which to tweet. He was free to make public remarks or talk to reporters, but none of those statements had the same immediacy or power.

Now, a small group of companies — already with commanding power over the American economy and headquartered in liberal West Coast enclaves — has demonstrated rising corporate power over the national political debate.

While Twitter was punishing Trump, in the span of a few days Google, Apple and Amazon also moved against a social media site favored by his supporters, Parler, pushing it out of app stores and off the Web for policy violations related to conversations there calling for violence ahead of last week’s attack on the Capitol. Twitter, meanwhile, has banned 70,000 accounts affiliated with the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory that also helped drive last week’s attack. Almost certainly, the overwhelming majority of the people banned were Trump supporters.

All this happened after years in which the same companies studiously avoided challenging Trump and his backers, while publicly embracing a high-toned doctrine of free speech far beyond that required by the First Amendment — which constrains the federal government, not private companies. The turnabout was abrupt and, as many have noted, timely, given that it came as Democrats took control of the Senate and President-elect Joe Biden’s path to the White House became assured.

How these companies handle such competing demands — balancing the imperatives of open political discourse with public safety and corporate profit motives — will be an ongoing national concern, one already under investigation by the Justice Department and state attorneys general. No matter the outcome of this legal wrangling, the awesome power of Silicon Valley has been highlighted in a way few will forget.

Even Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey expressed unease Wednesday night about depriving the president — and his followers — of his online voice.

“Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation,” Dorsey said in one tweet. “They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

Twitter bans Trump’s account, citing risk of further violence

Trump’s Twitter habit was born on May 4, 2009, still relatively early days for a service, created in 2006, that gradually has moved to the center of national debate on many things, including culture, sports and, most of all, politics. It was, at first, just another promotional tool for Trump, a news release for the social media age.

“Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!” tweeted the newly born @realDonaldTrump.

From those early experiments, Trump’s propensity to tweet grew as he came to understand its power — and his own. It helped him push the false “birther” conspiracy claim that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It helped him hype his ambitions to run for president when it still seemed outlandish to many. It allowed him to attack — first his Republican opponents, then, having conquered them, his Democratic ones.

Along the way, Trump pushed boundaries, defined debate, elevated those perceived loyal to him and savaged those seen as disloyal. Twitter and other social media companies rewrote their rules to accommodate him, developments that expanded the latitude afforded to other rule-benders worldwide as long as they held sufficient political power.

Trump’s account, which had 20 million followers on Inauguration Day four years ago, grew still faster after he took office, as he essentially governed by tweet — marveling at how fast his tweets could appear on news flashes around the world, even from what he relentlessly derided as the “fake news” media.

One researcher, University of Colorado information science professor Leysia Palen, spent months trying to understand the power of Trump’s tweets. She came away astonished at what he — and Twitter — had built, deeming it to be like nothing else in the world and perhaps the history of the world.

“Trump’s amplification machine,” she concluded in October, “is peerless.”

The unseen machine pushing Trump’s social media megaphone into overdrive

The machine surged into an especially high and troubling gear in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 certification of the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, spewing out baseless conspiracy theories, threats and calls to action. Researchers have singled out a Dec. 19 tweet as the spark that lit the fire that soon would consume Washington.

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted. “Be there, will be wild!”

This was seen by many of his most fervent followers as an invitation to not just march on Washington but take control of it, their own social media posts made clear. The only real question on far-right forums, such the one at, was whether to do so with guns.

“Does Daddy want [us] armed or not?!?!” one poster asked on the site, which was flooded with threatening talk ahead of the Capitol siege, according to a report by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Another poster replied: “I read that as armed. If everyone commits to constitutional carry, then how can they stop us?”

The president managed more provocations as supporters — many of them wearing “TRUMP 2020” flags as capes — came to Washington and soon began massing on the Capitol grounds.

One of his tweets on Jan. 6 attacked his once-loyal vice president, Mike Pence, as lacking the “courage” to defy a constitutionally mandated certification process. Hours after rioters battled with police, breached the building, ransacked offices and sent lawmakers fleeing for safety, Trump tweeted a video of himself reiterating baseless claims of election fraud and praising his supporters — many of them at that moment engaged in federal crimes — while also calling on them to leave the Capitol in peace.

“We love you,” Trump assured the mob, hundreds of whom would soon face federal investigation and arrest. “You’re very special.”

Twitter suspended the president soon after, for 12 hours at first. He paused, apparently chastened, before beginning to tweet again Thursday night. Twitter made the call after two more Trump tweets Friday morning. The president was banned. As Trump tried to utilize other accounts at his disposal, such as the White House’s official @POTUS account, those tweets were deleted as well.

Trump’s “peerless” machine spit out its last information bomb, according to now-essential online repositories such as the Trump Twitter Archive, at 10:44 a.m. Washington time on Friday. Trump’s last tweet — No. 56,571, according to the archive — was news, of course, even if the tone was uncharacteristically restrained: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

Then the storm was gone.

Twitter on Jan. 8 banned President Trump from its site, a punishment for his role in inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post)

Twitter had ruled that Trump’s two tweets that day — both mild by the standards he had set in recent years — were being interpreted by his followers as calls to ongoing action, increasing the danger of more violence in Washington and beyond. Many commentators said that this marked an expansion of Twitter’s enforcement approach, and that, unlike a ruling from a traditional court, Twitter’s decision offered no higher, independent entity to which Trump could appeal his case.

Trump spent the next several days considering what new platform to join, or whether to create a new one of his own. Researchers avidly watched some likely suspects, including Gab, Telegram and Parler — a favorite of powerful Trump supporters now facing its own reckoning with Silicon Valley over its lax approach to moderation — to see where the president might begin speaking again.

During these days, it became clear that Trump still had the traditional tools of presidential communication at his full disposal. Friday night, he issued a statement to the pool of reporters who follow him everywhere after efforts to tweet it failed, telling the world to “STAY TUNED!” He spoke with reporters as he left for a trip, berating social media companies. He gave a speech at the border wall. And the White House Twitter account tweeted a video of him Wednesday, saying, “I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week.”

He still dominated the news delivered to Americans across the political spectrum, even if his ability to shape that news to his whims was palpably diminished.

Twitter cited dangerous talk and online planning in banning Trump’s account

But many of those whose lives had been routinely interrupted by Trump’s twitchy Twitter fingers are now taking deep breaths. They are contemplating the unaccustomed quiet. They are thinking without worrying that another outrage, another insult, another White House firing could flash across their smartphones at any moment.

“From an organizing-my-day perspective, it’s handy not to have to drop everything whenever the next world-shattering tweet dropped,” said Darren Linvill, lead researcher for the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub.