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Jan 7, 2021

Trump loses social media megaphone as Facebook, Twitter act

Social media giants should have restricted Trump's posts sooner: Former Facebook advisor

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Facebook Inc. and other internet giants stripped Donald Trump of his social media megaphone after his online posts encouraged violent rioters that stormed the U.S. Capitol, an unprecedented move that will leave the president without one of his favorite and most volatile powers in his final days in office.

Facebook on Thursday said it was extending a ban on Trump’s posts “indefinitely,” or for at least two weeks, until President-elect Joe Biden takes over. Snap Inc. has also banned the president from posting on its Snapchat app until further notice, while Twitter put the president on a 12-hour hold after requiring him to delete tweets that supported the rioters, and warned that he may be banned permanently. Twitch, the live-streaming service owned by Amazon.com Inc., also disabled Trump’s account indefinitely.

“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said in a post Thursday. The restrictions in place will be extended “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” Biden is to be sworn in on Jan. 20.

Facebook’s move extended an initial 24-hour ban -- its first-ever ban on the president -- on both its main social network and photo-sharing app Instagram. Twitter Inc. asked Trump to remove three tweets, including one video message of Trump expressing love for the insurgents and calling the election “fraudulent.”

On Google’s YouTube, if Trump makes false claims about the election in another video, he’ll get a “strike,” which will temporarily prevent him from uploading new content or live-streaming, a spokesperson said. Channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period will be permanently removed from the site.

Trump has used his social media accounts to start debates, attack rivals, set policies, spread misinformation and provoke fights during his four years in office. The platforms have become potent tools for him, outside the traditional media and government structures that usually act as checks and balances on a president. The insurrection in Washington on Wednesday caused public outrage, much of it targeted at social media companies, who were blamed for continuing to provide the president with a digital pulpit from which to incite violence. Trump used Twitter as well as other services, including Facebook and YouTube, to urge supporters to strike out, and he remained silent for hours as the mob scene grew dangerous.

Many observers said the actions were long overdue. For years, social media critics have called on the companies to get tougher on Trump. Twitter and Facebook last year had begun to remove some of the president’s content or put it behind a warning screen if it contained misinformation or incendiary language, but neither company had ever completely suspended his account, saying his messages had inherent news value.

Zuckerberg on Thursday said that although Facebook has allowed Trump’s posts with few restrictions for years, the current context is “fundamentally different.”

Trump’s decision to “use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the U.S. and around the world,” Zuckerberg said. The social network removed those statements because they judged their effect and “likely their intent” would be to provoke further violence.

Silencing the president on their networks underscores the power these platforms have to shape political discussion and real-world events, based on their choices about what to amplify or tamp down. Members of Congress have called technology executives to several public hearings to discuss whether they’re using their power responsibly and explore the need for further regulation, especially to remove legal liability protections granted by the Communications Decency Act.

“These isolated actions are both too late and not nearly enough,” Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement Thursday. “These platforms have served as core organizing infrastructure for violent, far right groups and militia movements for several years now.” Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, called on Twitter to extend its ban on Trump for at least 13 days, until after inauguration, “in the interest of public safety.”

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed late Wednesday that Trump had deleted the tweets as the company required, meaning the president should have access to his account, though he has yet to post on Thursday.

Zuckerberg addressed Facebook workers in a companywide question-and-answer session, in which he repeated his reasoning and condemned Trump’s actions. Other Facebook leaders put the decision in context of the work the company has tried to do to prevent violence -- for instance, taking down groups organizing armed protests.

Amazon’s Twitch streaming service, meanwhile, says it has suspended the president’s channel until at least the inauguration, at which point it will reassess the situation, a spokeswoman said.

The sanctions against Trump started to spread beyond social media on Thursday. Shopify Inc., an e-commerce platform, said it pulled all digital stores affiliated with Trump, including the official retail site of the Trump Organization, Trumpstore.com.

“Shopify does not tolerate actions that incite violence,” a spokeswoman said by email. Trump’s actions violate the company’s Acceptable Use Policy, “which prohibits promotion or support of organizations, platforms or people that threaten or condone violence to further a cause,” she said. “As a result, we have terminated stores affiliated with President Trump.”

Since Trump’s inauguration, the nation has rarely gone so long without hearing from the president via the internet. When he came down with COVID-19 in October, observers took it as a sign he was truly sick when the tweets stopped for a few hours. Critics have long called on the platforms to enforce their own rules against Trump. After Biden’s inauguration, Trump becomes a private citizen and is more vulnerable to permanent bans if he breaks social media rules.

--With assistance from Danielle Bochove.