Tech

How Facebook and Twitter decided to take down Trump's accounts

Dylan Byers
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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House on travel to visit the U.S.-Mexico border Wall in Texas, in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2021.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg started to consider indefinitely suspending President Donald Trump's Facebook account late on the night of Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, for years had taken a mostly hands-off approach to Trump's false and incendiary claims, championing free expression and the newsworthiness of his statements as a growing chorus of critics outside and inside the company called for him to take more aggressive action.

But after a series of conversations with his top lieutenants — including Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg; Monika Bickert, the head of global content policy; global affairs chief Nick Clegg; and Joel Kaplan, the company's vice president of global public policy and its top emissary to Republicans in Washington — Zuckerberg had come to believe that Trump's brazen incitement of violence to overturn the election crossed a line, according to people familiar with the conversations who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.

Earlier in the day, Facebook banned Trump's account for 24 hours. Now, Zuckerberg was preparing a far more extensive ban: one that would last at least through the end of Trump's term.

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Early the next morning, from his vacation home in Kauai, Hawaii, Zuckerberg held a phone call with Sandberg, Bickert, Clegg, Kaplan and other executives. Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president of integrity, was on the call, along with Neil Potts, the public policy director for trust and safety policy, and Chief Diversity Officer Maxine Williams, among several others.

Zuckerberg said he had decided that Trump's attempts to incite violence and undermine the democratic process were grounds for an indefinite suspension. No one voiced a dissenting opinion, the people familiar with the call said.

Shortly thereafter, Zuckerberg published a Facebook post explaining that "the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great."

The same day, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was considering a far more radical move, sources familiar with Twitter's deliberations said. Based on the counsel of Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's legal chief and his most trusted lieutenant, Dorsey had come to believe that the appropriate course of action was to ban Trump's personal account permanently on the grounds that his ability to post presented a risk to public safety.

Dorsey was in French Polynesia, having spent much of the past year away from the San Francisco Bay Area largely preoccupied with other projects: Square, his mobile payment company; the future of cryptocurrency; and a potential acquisition of Jay-Z's music streaming platform, Tidal. (Dorsey has spent a great deal of time with Jay-Z in recent months, in both Hawaii and the Hamptons.)

After a series of conversations with Gadde and other top Twitter executives, Dorsey approved a permanent ban, even though he would later express reservations over his power to so heavily influence "the global public conversation." Twitter announced the ban Friday.

The Facebook and Twitter suspensions were a landmark moment for America's social media giants and the most visible demonstration yet of their absolute power. With a few unilateral decisions, a small group of tech executives deprived the president of the United States of his most influential broadcasting tools, curtailing his ability to command attention and drive the news cycle from his mobile phone at a moment's notice.

For more than four years, Trump had harnessed his social media accounts to drive the news cycle, set policy, move markets and rile up his base, often issuing statements or making declarations before his aides were aware of his plans. In a short span of time, he had lost almost all access to his preferred microphone.

Twitter and Facebook were the first of many companies to take action. In the days that followed, Google suspended Trump's YouTube channel, Reddit banned some pro-Trump forums, and Snapchat, which had already limited Trump's activity on its network, announced that it would permanently ban his account starting Jan. 20, the final day of his presidency.

Since then, Trump's presence in the fast-moving news cycle has been relatively minimal. He has been forced to release videos and statements through the news media, official press releases and, on Wednesday, on the White House Twitter account, which has just 26 million followers, less than a third of the audience he had commanded through his personal account. (Twitter said Trump's use of the White House account did not violate its ban.) Otherwise, Trump has hardly been heard from.

Executives at Facebook, Twitter and other companies say they believe they made the right decisions, but they also have reservations about their own power.

"The cost of this decision is that it sheds light on the fact that a small group of individuals get to make these decisions," said a Facebook executive involved in the deliberations about suspending Trump's account.

Platforms were not the only companies to highlight how the power of the internet is concentrated. Shortly after Facebook and Twitter suspended Trump's accounts, tech companies even more central to the internet flexed their muscles: Apple and Google removed Parler, a social networking app popular among Trump supporters, from their app stores for failing to prevent violent speech, and Amazon stopped hosting the app on its AWS web hosting service. Parler Chief Executive John Matze said Wednesday that the app, which claims 12 million users, may never return.

In a lengthy Twitter thread this week, Dorsey said Twitter's decision to ban Trump could set a "dangerous" precedent, highlighting "the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation."

But he also pointed to companies that control more than just their own platforms.

"This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet," Dorsey said of the decisions by Apple, Google and Amazon. "A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same."

Trump and his allies have also raised the alarm over the moves. Trump, in a video posted to the official White House Twitter account Wednesday, criticized "the efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens."

Democratic lawmakers, including those who have long criticized the growing power of the big tech companies, appear to be less troubled by the platforms' actions against Trump and his supporters. They note that the First Amendment does not prohibit private businesses from deciding what they host on their platforms, and they applaud the suspensions — some believe they should have happened earlier.

"Platforms are companies. They have user agreements," said Rachel Cohen, a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a vocal advocate of greater regulation of big tech. "When someone is in violation of the platform standards, they should be held accountable."

Both companies have long made special rules for Trump and other world leaders on the grounds that even their most controversial posts have significant news value. Most of Trump's controversial posts had remained on the platforms, sometimes behind warning labels, sometimes not.

The Facebook and Twitter decisions were a response to a very specific situation, sources at both companies said. A specifically influential actor was inciting violence and threatening the democratic process, and his words were having a demonstrable effect in the real world.

Twitter did not merely say Trump's words might inspire people to violence. It also cited "multiple indicators" that those words were "being received and understood" as an incitement to violence.

Now, the precedent has been set. And while the platforms may never again be in a situation as dire and extreme as the one they faced last week, the world has seen how much power tech companies wield and come to realize that their executives can take drastic action when necessary — altering the course of world history from tropical retreats in the Pacific Ocean — without any external laws or guidelines.

"This is not normal," a Facebook executive said. "These are extraordinary circumstances. We don't have a policy for what to do when a sitting president starts a coup."

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