Twitter in crisis

Watching protesters storm the Capitol building… was one of the more surreal stories in a dystopian year of news
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By Tom Adams

Watching protesters storm the Capitol building on the day Electoral College votes were to be ratified by US lawmakers was one of the more surreal stories in a dystopian year of news.

In the aftermath of the violent demonstration that left five dead, the significance of the role social media played came into sharp focus. Aside from the suspension of President Trump from Twitter, other topics of discussion included: FBI investigations into protesters sharing maps of tunnels below The Capitol prior to the event; the identification of protesters from live-stream footage and the removal of ‘Parler’, (a social media app favoured by some of Trump’s support base) from the Google, Amazon and Apple app store.

However, the most publicised and potentially significant social media consequence of the events on 6 January was Twitter’s permanent suspension of President Trump’s account.

Contrary to popular belief, Twitter’s decision to suspend Donald Trump was not based on anything he said prior to the violent demonstration – something that has been widely debated as incitement to violence and is currently the subject of a second impeachment proceeding, still underway at time of writing.

Instead, it relates to two tweets by @realDonaldTrump (8 January), after the storming of The Capitol on the 6th.

Tweet 1:

“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”

Tweet 2:

“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

Twitter published a lengthy justification for suspending Donald Trump, the key message of which is that suspension was justified based on these tweets because of the context of ‘how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter’ and that they ‘are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021’.

This is a step which is highly controversial. The justification from Twitter as laid out in their statement is that it was not the President’s words that got him suspended. Instead, Twitter is holding the President responsible for the potential actions of people outside of its platform, who may potentially be motivated by these two tweets.

By doing so, Twitter has now not only publicly acknowledged and moreover enforced a link between the words of one person on a cyber platform and acts of violence by others in the real world, but has also shifted its moral responsibility away from simply what it allows on its platform, to the role it plays in ‘real world’ events. In the words of its own founder, Jack Dorsey, in the aftermath of the event, ‘offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real’.

This seems to represent a seismic shift from their own stated policies on the topic in 2019. In a post on Twitter’s own blog entitled, ‘World Leaders on Twitter: principles & approach’ Twitter explained why the rules on potentially offensive or damaging remarks were different for world leaders, explicitly stating: ‘We focus on the language of reported Tweets and do not attempt to determine all potential interpretations of the content or its intent.’ Yet, Twitter’s stated reasons for banning @realDonaldTrump are all about the alleged meaning behind the language, potential interpretations and possible consequences.

To be clear, we should always remember that social media companies are not great institutions of state. Instead, they are for-profit behemoths whose core business is the sale of your personal data and usage habits to advertisers.

It’s worth highlighting that there was a commercial incentive to keep President Trump on Twitter while his ‘foreign policy saber-rattling’ was driving traffic to a platform that has struggled with declining market share for years. Rather than the phrase ‘commercial incentive’, Twitter prefers the phrase ‘clear public interest’. However, now that the President has become just another user it could be suggested that his damage to the Twitter brand outweighs ‘public interest’.

Either by circumstance or design, as a result of its words and actions Twitter now finds itself on the frontline of a fierce philosophical debate about freedom of speech, censorship, and the role Twitter plays in real world violence. What you think about Twitter’s actions or inaction is likely to stem from your own beliefs on the subject. What is clear is that their communications strategy is opaque, complex and likely to leave them open to allegation of mismanagement and hypocrisy. In the words of their founder:

‘Having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.’

Twitter will have to face more of these challenging questions in the months ahead.

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