Little more than a week into 2021, on January 8, the California-based social networking service Twitter announced that it had permanently suspended the account of Donald Trump – the President of the United States. This news came in the wake of the ignominious storming of the United States Capitol by a pro-Trump mob just two days earlier. The riot, which saw extensive damage to the historic building, members of congress evacuated, and five deaths, transpired shortly after President Trump railed against the presidential election results in a fiery speech to supporters in Washington D.C. as Congress was in the process of counting the electoral votes – leading to debate surrounding the degree of the president’s complicity in inciting the riot.
In response to this, numerous social networking platforms including Twitter announced that they had temporarily suspended President Trump’s accounts. Twitter later unblocked the account before taking the unprecedented action of permanently suspending it the next day – citing two recent tweets as justification for doing so. The tweets in question were flagged for violating Twitter’s ‘glorification of violence’ policy yet do not condone or incite violence in any way. One is a message, vigorous as it may be, concerning the president’s supporters having a “voice long into the future” while the other is a straightforward statement informing users that he will not attend the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 20th. However, instead of analyzing them objectively, Twitter argued that the tweets, not out of the ordinary for an account such as Trump’s that has previously shared false and heated claims, must be treated “in the broader context of events in the country.”
This resulted in Twitter compiling a list of points detailing how, in their indisputable opinion, the president’s tweets were grievous attempts to inspire others to engage in violent activity and undermine the peaceful transfer of power. In reading these points, one is struck by how completely subjective and interpretative they are – the whole thing is reminiscent of an English literature essay plan. Nowhere in Twitter’s explanation is there anything overtly concrete that incriminates the president in his alleged egregious attempts to stoke the flames of violence in America beyond a shadow of doubt. According to Twitter, the president stating that he will not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration may serve to encourage those considering violent acts to perpetrate them on the grounds that he will not be there. Seriously? These dubious justifications for censoring the president are largely far-fetched and reflect Twitter’s subjective interpretations; not the tweets themselves.
Yet it gets worse: not only does Twitter engage in Orwellian censorship, but openly allows other accounts to post content that, unlike the president’s tweets, threatens real violence. In May 2020, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, tweeted out a number of statements that, in no uncertain terms, called for “armed resistance” – terrorism – against the State of Israel. Shortly thereafter, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs called on Twitter to immediately suspend Khamenei’s account. Twitter declined to do so, with a company spokesperson stating that the tweets merely constituted “foreign policy saber-rattling” and did not violate the terms of service.
In what world does stating that one will not attend a presidential inauguration merit being banned on the grounds of encouraging violence while brazenly calling for a terrorist campaign against a sovereign state prompts no response? The discrepancy in Twitter’s handling of these events demonstrates their apparent complete hypocrisy in dealing with issues surrounding suspension and censorship. Indeed, it would appear as if the platform is more concerned with silencing voices that they may not necessarily agree with rather than truly cracking down on accounts that dangerously incite violence. The integrity of Twitter’s selective approach to censorship has been called into question previously, to the extent that CEO Jack Dorsey was called to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the fall of 2020 after the New York Post’s account was frozen on the grounds of promoting an article on the then controversial Hunter Biden story.
The apparent disdain for impartiality and fairness when suspending accounts for violating Twitter’s terms of service is unprecedented and has dangerous potential in the future as social media platforms become an increasingly powerful and widespread communications medium. Going forward, it is imperative that Twitter (and other social networking services) enforces its terms of service in an objective manner that effectively and impartially deals with legitimate hate speech – regardless of its source. Material that does not violate the terms of service should not be removed and subjective interpretations must not be relied upon to make that determination. After all, social media needs to be a place where everyone, regardless of their views, can participate in the public conversation and freely share their opinions – not have them censored and suppressed.
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