(TNS) — In the wake of Wednesday's siege of the U.S. Capitol by a violent and seditious mob seeking to prevent the certification of the presidential election, Facebook is blocking President Trump from posting until at least Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
Twitch and YouTube have also taken action against the president's false election claims and incitement of mob action. Twitter, the president's favored social media outlet, temporarily suspended his posting privileges Wednesday, but allowed him to resume posting Thursday.
It's a radical change for the tech companies, which have largely maintained a kid-gloves approach to the president's increasingly wild social media postings. Critics say the companies should have acted much earlier.
"The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post Thursday. Facebook's move followed years of criticism that the social network wasn't doing enough to prevent the spread of misinformation from the president and his supporters. The company deleted some of Trump's posts on Wednesday. Facebook-owned Instagram also suspended Trump's account.
Twitter suspended Trump for 12 hours after Wednesday's riot, only lifting the penalty after he agreed to delete several tweets that violated its policies. Trump posted a conciliatory video Thursday afternoon, saying that "America is and must always be a nation of law and order."
A Twitter spokesperson said Thursday afternoon the company is continuing to monitor the situation, including statements made off Twitter. "We will keep the public informed, including if further escalation in our enforcement approach is necessary," the emailed statement said.
Live-streaming site Twitch, owned by Amazon, also disabled Trump's account in light of Wednesday's violence, according to a company statement, and San Bruno's YouTube, which is part of Google, moved to limit the spread of disinformation, including removing some recent Trump videos and threatening a permanent ban on accounts that repeatedly perpetrate false claims.
Social media scholars said the decision to boot Trump from Facebook and other social media was necessary, but too little, too late.
"They've given him a bully pulpit to speak directly to people of the last four years," said Sarah T. Roberts, a professor at UCLA who studies online content moderation. Access to that medium was only temporarily taken away by the social networks after he used their services to foment insurrection, she said.
"It's a lot of closing of barn doors and hand wringing after the horses have already left," she said.
Companies like Facebook have faced attacks from conservatives who say their sites unfairly treat right-wing content differently than that disseminated by liberals. Lawmakers including Trump have long pointed to a perceived liberal bias in Silicon Valley.
But liberal lawmakers have castigated the companies for allowing disinformation and falsehoods about elections to spread.
Zuckerberg has walked a fine line in attempting to appease both sides of the political aisle. Roberts said it was notable that the company took the decision to ban Trump at least temporarily only once a presidential transition became certain.
The Facebook CEO wrote that the company had taken a light touch with the president "because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech."
Now, he said, "the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government. We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great."
It remains to be seen whether Democratic control of the federal government will increase pressure on companies like Facebook to moderate content.
Former first lady Michelle Obama called for a permanent ban on Trump and more stringent policies.
"Now is the time for Silicon Valley companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior — and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their (services) and putting in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation's leaders to fuel insurrection," she said in a statement Thursday.
The moves by Big Tech do not address a larger question about how online conversation should be moderated, Alex Stamos, the former head of security at Facebook, wrote on Twitter.
"There is no easy answer to 'how should billionaire CEOs protect us from reality-star politicians?'" Stamos, who now works at Stanford's Internet Observatory program, wrote.
Many employees of social media companies expressed support for the bans.
A survey of more than 400 Facebook and Twitter employees overwhelmingly found their employees believed the companies had done the right thing in locking Trump out, at least for a time.
The survey by Blind, an app that lets employees talk about their companies anonymously, found that 80 percent of Facebook employees surveyed said the social media companies acted correctly, while 75 percent of Twitter workers who participated said the same. Its results were published Thursday.
"Just as users are becoming more sophisticated and vocal about the expectations and demands of these firms, I think workers are too," Roberts said.
Generous pay and benefits "do not allay the concerns about the (political) cracks being exacerbated or wholly caused by material circulating on these channels," she said.
She pointed to a small but growing group of workers at Google parent Alphabet unionizing as evidence of ongoing discontent within the tech workforce and a potential model for other companies to follow.
At a higher level, Trump's use of Twitter to get around the traditional news media raises questions about what the government should be able to disseminate directly to people on social media.
"Who says the president needs to be able to tweet?" said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor at Syracuse University and a social media expert.
Grygiel has argued for checks on the government's ability to distribute what she calls propaganda on social media in order to preserve the role of the free press to enforce accuracy and transparency.
"We cannot simply rely on Zuckerberg to do the right thing" in deciding when and for how long to check the government's access to social media, Grygiel said, pointing to Wednesday's chaos at the Capitol.
"We need to make sure that can never happen again."
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