Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Wednesday, rioters stormed the US Capitol after they were encouraged by President Donald Trump to engage in “wild” protests while Congress counted the electoral votes certifying that Joe Biden won the presidency. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger called their actions, which included breaking windows, invading the House and Senate floors and other violent behavior, a “coup attempt.”
Besides President Trump himself, a portion of the responsibility for this attack on our democracy also rests on the shoulders of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, and to a lesser extent, on Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives whose platforms have allowed Trump and his allies and supporters to spread malicious untruths about the 2020 election.
With the horrifying images of a Capitol under siege still glowing on most of our screens and amid pressure from groups like the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League and Free Press, it comes as little surprise that on Wednesday, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all took action on Trump’s posts.
Facebook and YouTube both removed Trump’s video addressing supporters earlier Wednesday, in which he urged them to go home but reiterated his debunked claims about election fraud. Twitter initially restricted retweets and disabled likes and replies to the video, but later removed it along with several other tweets. Then for the first time, Twitter locked Trump’s account for 12 hours and said it might be banned altogether – which stopped short of a call from the NAACP president, issued through a spokesperson, to ban his account entirely.
All of these actions come too late. One reason that things got so out of hand in the first place is because Twitter didn’t shut Trump’s account down sooner. I warned even before Trump took office that the way he won the 2016 presidential election was largely by sharing information that was untrue on Twitter. The platform, of course, allowed Trump to bypass the traditional media, which would have fact checked him, and make claims that were patently false. Trump continued to do this throughout his presidency. And because no one was willing to shut him down (@jack, I’m looking at you), he only became more emboldened.
Social networks should have held Trump to the same standards as other users from the start. The first few times he shared mistruths or used abusive language, his posts should have been immediately removed and he should have been issued warnings. If he then continued to share misinformation or hate, his accounts should have been permanently suspended. If this had happened, our Capitol might never have come under siege.
But because he wasn’t held to account, Trump’s claims grew more dangerous over time. According to The Washington Post’s fact checkers, Trump initially made an average of 12 false claims per day, so it took him 827 days in office to reach 10,000 false claims. But it took him just 440 days more to reach 20,000 false claims – an average of 23 per day.
In addition to lying more as he realized he could get away with it, he also began to use more abusive language. As Helio Fred Garcia wrote in his 2020 book “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,” “over time, the frequency and intensity of Trump’s language (on social media as well as in speeches and with the media) changed. Without anyone or anything to stop it … he became more aggressive and his language more directly incendiary when discrediting his political rivals.” And, predictably, Garcia noted, after Trump insulted members of different groups, hate crimes against them spiked. So, let’s be clear: This is not the first time he has incited violence.
Of course, many of Trump’s tweets violated the rules Twitter applies to other users. But when Twitter was asked why it allowed Trump to tweet, for example, veiled death threats against North Korea’s leader and foreign minister in 2017, the platform said he enjoys an exemption for being “newsworthy.” As I argued back then, no one should be allowed to abuse Twitter’s platform, no matter how powerful they are.
Yet, because he enjoyed this impunity, Trump was able to build a base on Twitter that actually believes his mistruths. Now, the problem is that we have a huge number of citizens who falsely think the election was stolen and stormed the Capitol as a result.
“In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, DC, we are working proactively to protect the health of the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules,” Twitter said on Wednesday. If Wednesday’s events show us anything, it’s that this kind of approach is antiquated at best and dangerously naïve at worst. It’s too little, too late.
While shuttering Trump’s Twitter account now would make it too late to alter today’s disturbing threat to democracy, we still need to prevent this from happening again anywhere. Being a world leader should not exempt anyone from being required to follow the community standards that apply to other Twitter users. No one should use the platform to spread hate and misinformation. Jack Dorsey should change this policy today.
Facebook, for its part, called the rioting a “disgrace,” but also declined on Tuesday to shutter Trump’s account. That’s also a mistake.
In a televised address, President-elect Biden called on Trump to go on television and shut down the protesters – a sentiment that was echoed by many others on Twitter, including Alyssa Farah, his former communications director. The problem is that these calls, however well intentioned, reinvested Trump with too much power, signaling that a single statement from him could end the insurrection.
It’s true that Trump probably did have the power to end this faster and more bloodlessly with a single tweet or address than was possible through any other channel. But our democracy can’t hinge on the claims of a single person who lies and incites violence. We have to be stronger than this. We need institutions that keep us safe and ensure a peaceful transfer of power – including the Congress, which clearly needs better security. And we need social networks that don’t spread hate and lies.
While all eyes have been on Trump this afternoon, they should also turn to Jack Dorsey, who holds extraordinary power to help prevent future attacks on our democracy. In the long term, it’s social media platforms who have to make the next move.