Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The President of the United States Was Kicked Off Facebook Yesterday

Every four years, Americans go to the polls to pick a president and vice president; the following January, the House and Senate certify the results and confirm the winner. That January joint session is routine stuff — something so formal and kind of arcane that it can be hard to remember the procedure during any past election. On this occasion, a mob encouraged and defended by the president decided that they should violently interject themselves into proceedings because they did not like the result.

It was a shocking, terrifying, and entirely unsurprising escalation of the anti-democratic rhetoric frequently used by commentators and pundits in a specific media bubble. But it is also the product of a president who has used his status to elevate blatant lies, codswallop, and self-serving fictions. Most platforms have given him generous leeway to do so since he is a world leader by office if not by any other quality.

Ryan Mac, Buzzfeed News:

The insurrection isn’t just being televised. It’s being orchestrated, promoted, and broadcast on the platforms of companies with a collective value in the trillions of dollars.

And the platforms have let Trump persist. At 2:38 p.m. in DC, Trump issued a new message, in which he did not tell his supporters to stand down.

“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” he wrote on Twitter and Facebook, as members of his own party barricaded themselves in chambers and rooms and the vice president was forced to evacuate the building. Police were overwhelmed.

That tweet was posted well after rioters were in the Capitol, minutes after they were at the Senate doors, and just a few minutes before they got into the chamber. This attack was planned in the open and incited by the sitting president through, in part, the affordances of his social media presence. Platforms limited the reach of — and ultimately removed — videos and tweets he posted that could be read as encouraging the rioters. And then Facebook decided enough was enough.

Zoe Christien Jones, CBS News:

President Trump will no longer be able to use his official Facebook and Instagram accounts after the social media giant indefinitely banned him following the violent protests at the U.S. Capitol, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday. Mr. Trump will be banned at least through the end of his presidential term.

“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

Twitter suspended the president for twelve hours, and other platforms responded similarly.

Will Oremus, OneZero:

None of this is to say that Facebook is wrong to ban Trump, or that Twitter would be wrong to follow suit. There’s a good case to be made they should have done it well before now. While I’ve made the case for newsworthiness exemptions in the past, particularly on Twitter, it’s perfectly reasonable for media platforms to make judgment calls about the balance between newsworthiness and, say, public health or safety — as long as they admit that is in fact what they’re doing. It’s what true media organizations do every day. The only thing worse than constantly changing the rules would be stubbornly sticking to them when it’s clear they’re inadequate or misguided.

But the dominant platforms have always been loath to own up to their subjectivity, because it highlights the extraordinary, unfettered power they wield over the global public square, and places the responsibility for that power on their own shoulders. That in turn would make it clear that the underlying problem here is not the rules themselves, but the fact that just a few, for-profit entities have such power over global speech and politics in the first place. So they hide behind an ever-changing rulebook, alternately pointing to it when it’s convenient and shoving it under the nearest rug when it isn’t.

These platforms are designed to get advertisements and posts from public figures in front of as many users as possible — similar to the way mass media has worked for a couple of decades now. So what do their leadership teams do when those qualities are abused by someone to threaten public safety and democracy itself? In the case of news media, there are editors who are theoretically able to make factual corrections and put misleading information in context. Unfortunately, the people in charge of those decisions often prefer shouting matches; it’s better television. But social media platforms do not have an equivalent; de-platforming, whether temporarily or permanently, is the closest thing they have short of a soup-to-nuts rearchitecting of how posts are presented.

Rethinking how prominent posts are presented and lies are treated is something platforms should have done a long time ago. Facebook and Twitter are clearly still making all of this up as they go along. It was painfully clear one or two or five years ago that they needed to have new ways of presenting items from world leaders, lawmakers, and their spokespersons that would minimize the use of these platforms for indoctrination and, now, insurrection. They have failed to do so. That is why they have a choice between heavy-handed responses like these and doing next to nothing. In this context, I think the heavy-handed approach is almost certainly the correct one. But none of this should have gone this far — and the failures of these platforms stand out as one reason of many for the escalation of violent rhetoric from authoritative figures and the platforms’ aggressive response.