“Should Donald Trump be returned to social media?”
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That was the question of a Stanford/UCLA symposium held in October, 2022.
We were asked to write five-page papers to answer the question. Here is the collection. My answer is below:
“Should Donald Trump be returned to social media?”
No, he should not.
To be sure, it’s bizarre that the President of the United States was successfully deplatformed at all. Imagine: anyone among billions of users – whether named or anonymous or bot – can tweet, but President Donald J. Trump can’t.
I wrote an essay six months before Trump’s suspension urging Twitter to take action, but I doubted it would work more than symbolically, in two senses. First, while digital censorship can be effective without having to be totalizing – it’s typically a matter of simply raising the costs of sending and receiving enough so would-be audiences graze elsewhere – there was and is enough innate interest, positive and negative, in what Trump says that I figured his short utterances would easily find their way back onto the platform at the same or greater level of saturation as before.
Indeed, I thought that Trump might turn it into an “I am Spartacus” moment for his fans: he’d set up a link like www.whitehouse.gov/PresidentTrumpsTruth, place his tweet of the moment there, and ask his supporters to use their own Twitter accounts to post each statement as it happened. People who engaged with Trump’s tweets before would continue to engage, and Trump’s words would thus still find anyone on Twitter they’d have found before. Would Twitter really end up further deplatforming anyone manually (re)tweeting like that? Hundreds, or thousands, of people? Or would the company figure that such behavior would only violate its suspension of Trump under certain circumstances — at which point it would be back to the case-by-case tweet reviews that had preceded the full ban. (At least one bot was suspended in the spring of 2022 for placing Trump’s tweet-equivalents from his doppelganger “Truth” social media network onto Twitter.)
The Spartacus strategy of third-party retweets raises the second reason I thought deplatforming Trump wouldn’t work: aside from the pressure (and perhaps undesirable loss of tweet activity) from penalized Trump supporters trying to circumvent the ban, there could have been a true abandonment of Twitter as a nonpartisan platform by many of its users. Twitter, wanting to avoid that, would then figure out a way to replatform him. In the counterfactual in which Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton were banned, those attuned to politics and culture might truly no longer want to associate with the platform, and they would, from whatever positions of power they occupy, be of a mind to punish the company. While there have been fitful efforts on that front for Trump – including a law in Texas that stands to greatly affect how platforms like Twitter operate if it remains in force – the fact that there hasn’t been broad-based and heartfelt outrage over Trump’s removal is a tell that the basis for it was and is reasonably sound. Twitter’s action, even for many who disagree with it, was not arbitrary or politically petty.
Which brings us to the merits of the ban. I favored Trump’s deplatforming for one core reason: he was using the platform to incite violence. That incitement might not meet First Amendment standards, particularly for imminence, as expressed in a case like Brandenburg v. Ohio, but I don’t think that should be the standard for a private company’s content moderation, even one with as much singular amplification power as Twitter. (I also think that Brandenburg may require some careful interpretation – if not outright revisitation. We dwell in an age in which incitement can carry virally in a way that it could not from the Ohio farm rally at issue in that case. Trump’s speech on the Ellipse on January 6th and its link to the subsequent attack on the Capitol should, in my view, rise to the level of incitement that the First Amendment does not protect.) It was important for Twitter to both not to be a party to that incitement by effortlessly amplifying it to his nearly 90 million followers and beyond, and to signal as a matter of its own values as a company – an American company – that there are behaviors by public figures, particularly public officials or candidates who swear to uphold and abide by the Constitution, that fall outside the realm of the regular give-and-take of political discourse.
In May of 2020, Trump retweeted, with praise, a video of a supporter saying that “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” And on January 6th, 2021, As Vice President Pence’s Secret Service detail sought to shelter him outside the Senate chamber from a crowd inside the building that included people baying for his death, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
Two days after the events of January 6th, 2021, Trump tweeted, “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!!!”
Ryan Goodman, Mari Dugas, and Nicholas Tonckens have catalogued Trump’s pattern of suggesting violence both on and off Twitter, and Gilad Edelman of Wired surmised that Twitter’s suspension of Trump on the basis of the last tweet above was best understood in the context of Trump’s prior behavior over a number of months, culminating in the Capitol attack that Trump’s speech on the Ellipse outside the White House had incited and its aftermath.
At that point, the risk of being or looking political or biased was outweighed by the necessity of not normalizing Trump’s considered behavior as he sought to inspire violence around his exhaustively litigated lie that he had in fact won the 2020 election and thus should not yield his office. And given that Trump has not evinced any regret for his actions, much less a commitment not to repeat them – indeed, he has not asked to be reinstated – the arguments supporting the original deplatforming continue to militate against replatforming. Facebook and Instagram banned Trump on January 7th; Facebook’s Oversight Board has directed the company to consider lifting the ban in 2023. Trump continues broadcasting short messages over his own “Truth Social” platform, including what easily read as calls to violence in recent days. For example, after Senator Mitch McConnell supported a short-term funding resolution, Trump wrote that McConnell’s actions were “unacceptable” and that he “has a DEATH WISH.”
Certainly there are those who disagree with Trump’s ban, although they tend not to engage on the question of whether Trump’s tweets have glorified violence. Among his supporters are those who believe or at least maintain that the election was in fact stolen, justifying extreme statements to reverse its outcome. Here it was acceptable for the company to come to its own judgment about the merits of the claim that the election was stolen, just as it must judge all sorts of contingent facts in order to assess other violations of its terms of service.
Some opponents of the ban also simply raise whataboutism, although few others’ calls for violence carry the added weight of the Presidency with them. Twitter’s “public interest” exception to its own code of conduct sometimes gives public officials more leeway than regular users, in the interest of having the public know what their officials are saying and doing, but it sensibly involves a balancing test in which the risk of harm is to be considered against the public interest in allowing a statement to remain visible.
For those who think that balancing test should come out the other way, many oppose Trump substantively – they simply believe that leaving his tweets up would be both horrifying and salutary, the latter because a large swath of the voting public not wholly supporting Trump but inclined to the policies of Trump’s political party would be continually reminded of his unfitness for office and his rejection of even the rudimentary elements of the rule of law. As I write, the conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party will benefit if Trump holds any announcement of his candidacy for the 2024 Presidential election until after the 2022 midterms, so as not to frame those midterms disadvantageously as a referendum on the former President.
The effects of deplatforming in other cases may be mixed – contingent on each particular circumstance. But bank shots in which Trump is returned to the platform in order to hurt, rather than help, his political prospects is a level of prediction and strategizing that can too easily go awry, and more important, should not be a factor in Twitter’s decisionmaking. (Jack Dorsey, who was CEO at the time of Trump’s suspension, wrote a thread reluctantly supporting the suspension at the time, and has since said that there should be no permanent bans of individuals, on the basis that he doesn’t think companies should be “gatekeepers to political discourse.”)
Platforms like Twitter should not be suspending some accounts and retaining others in an effort to alter the outcome of an election; rather, they should be enforcing codes of conduct that prohibit calls for extralegal violence so as not to become an accomplice to them, full stop.