Trump was removed from Twitter, and that’s a good thing.
Pundits, propagandists, commentators, reactionaries – everyone, it seems, has an opinion about it. Some say that this violates First Amendment rights, that Twitter has no place removing a public figure from its site, that it is arrogant, Democrat-favoured censorship (Twitter bans Trump, beginning the Big Tech crackdown on conservatives (usatoday.com)). Others, like me, say that those people don’t know what they’re talking about.
First of all, the First Amendment only deals with governmental interference in free speech, not a private company’s (The Constitution | The White House), meaning that Twitter is free to remove anyone they want from their platform, even under the First Amendment.
Secondly, in an interview with The Guardian, Ben Wizner, counsel to Edward Snowden, stated the seemingly obvious, that “if we did begin to roll back first amendment rights, Trump would be at the top of the enforcement structure.” It is easy to see why: Trump has not been seen upholding rigorous standards of free expression. It is a pity, really, that Trump’s track record with free speech needs to be recalled: his attacks on the free press have been documented since 2016. He established ‘Fake News’ as part of the political lexicon; he called for the dismissal of black NFL players who were performing their right to free speech through protest during the national anthem; and he has repeatedly been publicly seen not giving a modicum of respect towards the First Amendment.
So it is odd that he should be so trigger-happy to invoke it.
Nonetheless, was Twitter justified in banning him? As a private company, it is well within its rights to suspend anyone’s account if they are seen to violate the company’s Terms of Service. According to a public statement made by Twitter, Trump had contravened its Glorification of Violence policy in his recent tweets (Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump (twitter.com)). Twitter employed its own rules here, rules crafted to serve the free market. I would think that libertarians like Ben Shapiro would recognise that.
Violating the ToS was likely not the only reason Trump was banned. If it were, it would’ve happened years ago. What changed? It is not a huge leap of the imagination to see Twitter’s choice in the context of a power transition. There is no love lost between Trump and his policy forum of choice. In the aftermath of his election loss, Trump revealed an executive order that would, according to The Independent, open Twitter, Facebook and Google to federal investigation over how they deal with content posted on their platforms. This, coincidentally, happened after Twitter branded one of Trump’s election fraud tweets with the fact-check stamp of disapproval.
But does the legality of Trump’s suspension, which is watertight, bear any weight on its morality? I think so, but there is a nuanced conversation to be had here.
If you consider Trump’s tweets to have been harmful to the democratic process (which they were. See Trump tweets ‘I WON THE ELECTION’ and is immediately corrected by Twitter | The Independent), if you think that Trump’s tweets have led people to believe obvious and provable lies, if you think his existence on Twitter did more harm than good, then you would probably agree with me here that his expulsion was a net gain.
@realDonaldTrump has been a cesspit of misinformation – from calling global warming a Chinese hoax, to disseminating birtherist conspiracies surrounding Obama’s birth certificate, even to claiming that wind turbines kill bald eagles. It seems Trump’s lies are as much a property of his character as his orange skin.
There are those who consider Twitter’s removal as a miscarriage of justice. Many people tweet far more indecently than Trump, the argument goes, and they aren’t removed. Well, those people aren’t (or weren’t) the President of the United States, those people could only dream of having the level of influence Trump has. The authority Trump possesses intensifies the measure of response he gets. I challenge one of these fringe users to inspire a riot at the US Capitol, like Trump did: his dangerous followers would have nothing to follow without his influence. Rebels without a cause.
This isn’t to rally behind corporate interests: you could still say that private companies have too much control over people’s lives whilst agreeing that Trump deserved to have his account suspended, much as you could acknowledge the history and contribution of racism within the police force whilst advocating the arrest of murderers and bank robbers. There is no saying that someone is either pro-censorship or pro-freedom, because the picture is a little more complicated than that. Those who find themselves opposing the monopolisation of services by Google can still say good riddance to the binning of the former President of the United States.
But it must be said, ‘Big Tech censorship’ – how conservatives love to dramatise! – whether or not it’s covered by the First Amendment, is inevitable because Terms of Service are absolutely crucial, inestimably necessary. A website without Terms of Service is an antinomian wasteland – or it would be, if any such site existed. Twitter is free to remove things from its platform: it does it all the time, the only difference being that now it’s happened to someone with tangible, if wilting, power. This is what other users call a ‘consequence’.
But even if you disagree with me on everything I’ve said about how harmful Trump was on Twitter, especially in his pandering to the conspiracist hub QAnon, and how vital Terms of Service are, here’s the kicker. Trump still has free speech.
What happens when you spend your presidency decrying any journalist who questions you? You send out a misspelt, utterly incoherent policy suggestion on your favourite website because you have engendered a distrust in your followers of the media for years, and block anyone who criticises you (which, according to Forbes, Trump made a habit of). And what happens when a president uses a social media site as a policy announcement centre? When he gets removed, he doesn’t know how to call a press conference. Trump could pick up the phone now and any journalist would answer it. That, I’m afraid, is free speech.
There you have it. Trump deserved to be removed, Twitter was justified in doing it, and still he isn’t muzzled. In fact, the silence from the White House right now is not Trump twiddling his thumbs in the absence of a Twitter account: it’s shame, and it’s cowardice.