On Friday, January 8, 2021, the popular social media platform Twitter banned former President Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account. In a statement from Twitter, the platform claimed that “the risk of further incitement of violence” was ample reasoning to remove Donald Trump’s Twitter account permanently (Conger).
The tweets written by President Trump violated Twitter’s guidelines that prevent the glorification of violence on its platform. Twitter stated that the ban specifically addresses the account, @realDonaldTrump, and does not attack Mr. Trump personally (Fung). Further, the policy will be enforced against any ban evasions meaning that Trump cannot make a new account to evade the ban or employ a third party to manage an account for him either (Fung). Mr. Trump is essentially barred from posting any of his own content on Twitter ever again.
Many believe that the permanent ban on Mr. Trump’s Twitter account is long overdue. Meanwhile, others argue that this is a violation of Mr. Trump’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Several journalists also felt as though Twitter infringed upon their rights as well. Accounts like @TeamTrump faced suspensions and bans because they used the “same language” as Donald Trump’s tweets (Fung). Twitter claimed that reporters could face similar repercussions of suspensions or bans because repeating the exact words of Mr. Trump was another way to evade the ban, rather than simply reporting on the actions of Trump as news (Fung). In this instance, Twitter does not aim to infringe on one’s freedom of speech, but rather eliminate hate speech and division from their platform.
The First Amendment of the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech” (Fuller). However, social media platforms are run by private companies, where freedom of speech is not a guaranteed right. A user must adhere to the guidelines in the terms and conditions of the social media platform, which may include restrictions on speech. Typically these restrictions come in the form of no bullying or harassment, no criminal activity, and no threats of violence (Fuller). Anything a user writes or says that violates these terms can be reason for suspension or removal from a social media platform, regardless of the First Amendment. Because the private company is regulating speech, the government is not abridging one’s right to free speech, and thus the user’s First Amendment rights are not being infringed upon.
In terms of legislation, there is a gray area between freedom of speech and the need to eliminate misinformation from social media that has yet to be defined. Misinformation does not always fall into the category of bullying, harassment, criminal activity, or a threat of violence. When it does, it can be removed by a platform and the user can be suspended for a violation of user guidelines. However, social media companies face a new challenge when misinformation does not violate these guidelines already in place. They must adapt their user guidelines or draft new policies to address the spread of misinformation on their sites. If social media companies fail to erase misinformation from their platform, they may face new questions of regulation. As social media platforms are currently self-regulating sites, the question of misinformation may lead legislators to take a more regulatory approach to social media.
Social media companies are already cracking down. More recently, in early March, Twitter took steps to prevent the spread of misinformation on its platform, specifically in terms of information related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Twitter corporate blog discussed its new five-strike policy that aims to educate people on why their content may be inappropriate or violate Twitter guidelines. There is no account-level action after one strike, but after the second and third strike, a user faces a 12-hour account lock. After the fourth strike, there is a seven-day account lock. Following a fifth strike, the user faces permanent suspension of their account (Hall). Any content that is found to be violating Twitter’s policies will be flagged with a label as Twitter team members assess the content (Hall).
Since these processes are in their early stages, human review is paramount to the efforts, but Twitter hopes to capitalize on both automated and human review to address any and all content that may violate these misinformation rules (Hall). In a world where information is placed at our fingertips, it is essential for the companies that distribute this information and misinformation to identify the falsities in their content.
In 2021, social media platforms are among the most powerful and influential aspects of life that affect nearly every person who has access to the internet or a smartphone. An untamed power has been placed in the hands of private companies. Social media platforms must learn to find the balance between individual rights and the common good. As the primary source of information for many people, these platforms have found a duty in ensuring that the content they share is factually accurate. So, if some users must be suspended or banned from the platform, this sacrifice of a small number of individual’s rights for the common good may just be well worth it.
Conger, Kate and Mike Isaac. “Twitter Permanently Bans Trump, Capping Online Revolt.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Jan. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/01/08/technology/twitter-trump-suspended.html.
Fuller, Michael. “Know Your Rights with Freedom of Speech and Social Media.” CT, NBC Connecticut, 12 Jan. 2021, www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/know-your-rights-with-freedom-of-speech-and-social-media/2402583/.
Fung, Brian. “Twitter Bans President Trump Permanently.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Jan. 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/01/08/tech/trump-twitter-ban/index.html.
Hall, Phil. “Twitter Enacts Five-Strike Policy To Combat COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation.” Yahoo! Finance. Yahoo!, finance.yahoo.com/news/twitter-enacts-five-strike-policy-163306591.html.