Following the domestic terrorist insurrection attack on January 6, 2021 in the U.S. Capitol, there was an enormous response from several top social media outlets. Some of these companies, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, decided to temporarily ban former President Donald Trump from their platforms for inciting violence at the Capitol riots. Later on, Twitter ended up taking a step further to fully deactivate and delete Trump’s account, whilst other platforms also began rapidly removing Donald Trump’s accounts or accounts affiliated with pro-Trump violence and conspiracies.
While this may seem logical for these companies to use censorship to protect the general public from more premeditated attacks, violence, and lies, there are many people still questioning whether these media outlets are legally allowed to do this and if such censorship constituted violations of the First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is where the most prominent free speech protections are for the citizens. However, what many people do not realize or forget is that these protections only protect individuals from federal and state actions. With this, free speech does not protect individuals from censorship by a private entity. This gives any social media company or employer the right to create their own rules that can restrict the speech of its users.
For this topic on censorship, I reached out to a professor in the Political Sciences field at Lewis University, Dr. Steve Nawara. Dr. Nawara is in charge of the Political Science Club at Lewis University, along with having several successful scholarly publications in his field. I spoke with Dr. Nawara about Twitter’s and other social media companies to remove or restrict Trump’s accounts to gain some insight into the various aspects of the question.
As Dr. Nawara stated, “The First Amendment does not stop censorship by businesses or protect our speech from retribution by our employers, families, and our fellow Americans. Thus, in short, it’s perfectly legal for private companies like Twitter and Amazon to deny service to those who violate their terms of service. As long as they aren’t discriminating based on a legally-protected class (e.g. sex, race, religion, national origin, etc.), companies are free to do business with whoever they choose. It might be stupid from a business standpoint, but if Twitter wanted to kick every conservative off of their platform they probably could.”
While many legal experts agree with Dr. Nawara’s views on private censorship, some wonder why the companies waited until now to act, and others see an effort to silence the voices of Trump supporters.
Many conservatives believe these Big Tech companies are trying to silent their voices by banning Trump, along with some other vocal political figures on these platforms. Some even state that they feel like their party views are trying to be completely erased off of social media entirely.
However, these companies say their platforms are aimed to strike a balance between promoting free expression, while also removing misinformation and hate speech. In honor to keep their word, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, made a statement saying that Facebook would no longer recommend political and civic groups to users. Zuckerberg also stated that he would minimize politics on people’s News Feeds.
Along with Facebook, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, acknowledged that they made enforcement errors in the past, but strongly insisted that their policies are applied fairly to everyone who uses their platforms.
While statements may not feel like enough evidence for most people, myself included, there have been several studies showing that conservatives are not being silenced and do not have a disadvantage on social media platforms. According to a study by Media Matters for Americans [MMFA], a nonprofit organization, they found after 37 weeks of watching liberal and conversative-leaning Facebook pages that their weekly interactions were equal.
As stated by the authors of the study, “Right-leaning pages earned on average about 372,000 weekly interactions and left-leaning pages earned on average about 369,000 weekly interactions” (MMFA). This data is also consistent with a similar study undertaken by MMFA in previous years.
Throughout former President Donald Trump’s term, there were numerous times where he violated Twitter’s and Facebook’s policies that normally would result in permanent bans. However, it wasn’t until January 6, when the call for insurrection at the Capitol occurred that these platforms finally decided to take action.
To put it simply, the reason why these platforms did not result in account bans is because Donald Trump was the President of the United States. Being a political figure, especially during a crisis, means that their message is important to the general public and it’s important to stay connected.
Many of these companies did not ban Trump for this reason, but also for more selfish reasons such as company profitability and public perception.
During Trump’s presidency, he took upon Twitter as his main voice line to his supporters. In 2017, Trump generated an estimated $2 billion for Twitter by bringing in new users, keeping them on the site to read what he had to say, and scrolling past advertisements which would add up to their revenue. However, after Trump’s ban the company’s stock dropped by 13.4% in early trading and lost about 5 billion dollar of market value.
Overall, while this is a complicated topic to discuss, it’s important to reflect on the factual evidence taken from studies, and understand the rights you have as a citizen using these social media platforms. Censorship, used correctly and ethically, is important in today’s society to help limit the amount of misinformation and abuse through the internet