The rat-tat-tat of takedowns was a striking display of the tech industry’s power to shape the fate of even the president of the United States. And it comes after years of efforts by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington to cut Silicon Valley down to size — including lawsuits that Trump’s antitrust enforcers have filed in recent months against Facebook and Google, plus efforts on both the right and left to challenge Section 230, the provision in communications law that limits online platforms’ liability for what users post to them.
Those lawsuits, legislative efforts and a potential antitrust investigation of Apple’s App Store echo the complaint that, remarkably, Trump supporters, civil libertarians and some prominent Democrats are airing this weekend: No handful of companies should have this much unilateral authority.
“[I]t should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier,” American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane said in a statement.
Of course, many on the left cheered Twitter’s takedown of Trump. Rashad Robinson, president of the advocacy group Color of Change — which has long argued that Trump and his allies have used social media to stoke racism in the United States — called the move in a statement overdue but “monumental progress.” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called himself “relieved,” and House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tweeted that “social media companies have allowed this vile content to fester for too long, and need to do much more.”
Democrats’ anger at the tech industry remains real, however — and their looming full control over Congress and the executive branch will give them the opportunity to try to tame Silicon Valley.
President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is expected to continue pursuing the big-tech antitrust cases that Trump’s agencies filed. Just this week Biden chose a prominent Facebook critic, civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta, to be the No. 3 official in his Justice Department. House Democrats have proposed a raft of major legislative changes — over some Republicans’ objections — to make it easier to break up giant tech companies and keep them from getting bigger.
Conservatives’ Trump-era grievances against Silicon Valley have focused largely on accusations of censorship and cancel culture. The left has a different critique: If powerful companies like Twitter and Facebook had more competition, they’d behave more responsibly — even before that became the smart political move.
“It took blood and glass in the halls of Congress — and a change in the political winds — for the most powerful tech companies in the world to recognize, at the last possible moment, the profound threat of Donald Trump,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in a statement. And tweeted Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director both in the Obama White House and the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, “It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them.”
As a long line of court cases points out, online platforms are private businesses that can host or kick out anyone they want. Still, for four long years, Silicon Valley’s companies had tried to carve out paths through the Trump presidency that minimized the harm he could cause while skirting the idea that it was censoring the political free speech of Americans. All the while, they were under intense pressure from Democrats, many in the civil rights world, and others to simply turn off Trump’s digital microphone.
So why did Silicon Valley decide it had had enough of Trump now, this week, after so many years of turmoil?
In retrospect, the arc of Trump’s presidency and the course of recent events conspired to make what we’re witnessing nearly inevitable.
Jump back to last winter. Twitter and others in Silicon Valley have said that their experience with tackling bad information circulating about Covid-19 in its early days was a powerful lesson: They could throttle information they thought threatened the public good and the sky wouldn’t fall down.
Fast forward some months, and in November Trump became a lame duck — and a much less scary political enemy.
Trump’s loss also undercut one of the social media companies’ loudest arguments for keeping Trump on board: Voters should know what their elected leaders thinks so they can decide whether to vote for them. As of Nov. 3, that ship had sailed.
More recently, and most horrifically, was this week’s violence on Capitol Hill that left five people, including a Capitol police officer, dead. Tech companies had, in recent years, landed on the idea that they had to act when online rhetoric caused offline harm. The facts smacked them in the face: What Trump was saying online was fueling violence in the real world.
And, they feared, the worst was yet to come. Inauguration Day is looming, less than two weeks away, and the companies worried that Trump and his supporters would use social media in their bid to cause havoc around Biden’s swearing-in.
Then Trump, on Friday, tweeted that he wouldn’t be attending the transfer of power, tweeting: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” (With Trump’s account suspended, the tweet is no longer viewable.)
While a bland and fairly unsurprising statement of facts on its face, the post was interpreted inside Twitter as a potential signal to supporters that they should feel free to once again gather in D.C. and get violent.
Twitter said as much in its blog post announcing the Trump ban. Factoring into its decision, the company said, was that “[p]lans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings” in the run-up to the inauguration.
Kicking Trump off right now solved both a long-term headache and immediate crisis for Twitter.
Also, importantly, it had the benefit of a bit of cover from Facebook. When it comes to politics, Silicon Valley companies have traditionally been extraordinarily reluctant to get ahead of others in their industry. Facebook opened the door with its short-term restriction on Trump, freeing Twitter to jump through it.
But as popular as Silicon Valley’s moves were with many Democrats newly in power in Biden’s Washington, it is at best a brief reprieve for the industry.
“An overdue step,” tweeted Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But it’s important to remember, this is much bigger than one person. It’s about an entire ecosystem that allows misinformation and hate to spread and fester unchecked.”