By CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News
(MENLO PARK, Calif.) — After a mob of pro-Trump supporters violently stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., during a joint session of Congress, Facebook took the unprecedented step of indefinitely blocking the president’s account.
As pressure mounts and social media companies are being forced to respond to their alleged culpability in the events that unfolded, some experts say now can be a moment of reckoning and change for these tech giants that have been left largely unregulated in the arena of political speech.
At least four people have died following the so-called insurrection that erupted at the Capitol on Wednesday. As the world watched the violence unfold in horror, President Donald Trump shared a video on his social media accounts telling the protesters “we love you” and “you’re very special” as he told them to go home.
The video was soon removed by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As pressure mounted, Facebook and Twitter took the extra step of temporarily suspending Trump’s accounts. On Thursday, Facebook went a step further and said it was indefinitely suspending Trump’s accounts on its platforms, including Instagram.
“Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post.
“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” he added. “Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
Twitter also removed the video from its platform and said it requested the removal of three of Trump’s tweets and also slapped a 12-hour lock on Trump’s account Wednesday night. “If the Tweets are not removed, the account will remain locked,” the company added in a Tweet on its verified safety account.
YouTube also said in a statement that it removed Trump’s video for policy violations and will not allow copies of the video to be uploaded without additional context.
Social media moment of reckoning, calls for regulation
While some expressed shock at the events that unfolded at what was originally called a peaceful Trump rally, social media experts say the hostility that broke into violence has been breeding online for years.
“If you didn’t see this coming, you didn’t have your eyes open,” Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications (social media), at Syracuse University, told ABC News. “This isn’t something that just happened overnight, this has been a repeated failure from platforms to effectively address government propaganda on the platform.”
Social media abuse and hatred has been linked to real-world violence elsewhere in the world, Grygiel noted, citing the attacks against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Grygiel said it was naive to think the U.S. and its democratic system could be immune to social media exploitation.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the last four years since Trump has taken office is a systematic neglect from platforms to take effective action in their policies to prevent social media abuse from the president of the United States,” Grygiel added.
Grygiel also noted that Trump has a history of causing chaos with his Twitter use, and said his accounts should have been moderated before versus after he posts.
“What I’ve been calling for is pre-moderating the president’s posts to make sure that they do not violate the policies of these platforms before they’re posted,” Grygiel said. “You cannot simply recall a president’s tweet as soon as it hits …. We have seen tweets that can crash stock markets, this is an instantaneous communications platform.”
Grygiel said that the actions the social media companies have taken in response to Wednesday’s events is “better than nothing” but big issues and questions remain.
The president uses social media “to circumvent the Free Press,” Grygiel said, adding that he could have held a White House Press Briefing rather than just spew harmful rhetoric directly to his audience.
“What we need is federal propaganda regulation to ensure their president is not able to propagandize the people in this way, and to control the media in such a way that it makes it difficult for the free press to hold the government accountable,” Grygiel said.
Karen Kornbluh, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the current the director of the digital innovation and democracy initiative at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told ABC News that she is hopeful this can be a moment for change for companies that have been left largely unregulated.
“I think we all have to realize that this isn’t a game, sometimes what happens online people think of as a game and they don’t take it seriously,” Kornbluh said. “And they think that it’s a completely separate world, this terra incognita, where none of our own rules apply.”
“We need to apply a lot of the old truths and old rules that we learned in the offline world, whether its consumer protection, or civil rights protections, or campaign finance rules, or how law enforcement has to take threats seriously,” Kornbluh said. “We realized that yesterday, the online game spilled out into IRL, in real life.”
Echoing Grygiel, Kornbluh said that the old practice of social media giants playing “whack-a-mole” with content after it’s already been posted has proven ineffective.
“They should employ things like a circuit breaker. If there’s somebody who’s a repeat offender, maybe don’t take them live,” Kornbluh said. “Maybe have a few seconds delay like you had on television, and see so that you can check does this violate our rules? Or doesn’t it? And then be consistent about that.”
Kornbluh said she understands that the Trump account is the “hardest question” for companies tied up in the debates on free speech from the president.
“But they have made clear within their terms of service where the line was, and they unfortunately kept moving it for him and sent a terrible message: that anything was going to be allowed,” Kornbluh added. “I hope one of the things they’ve learned is that they have to be really clear about what they’re going to allow their platforms to be used for, and incitement to violence and potential incitement to violence, if that’s their line — and I hope it is — that they really have to enforce it.”
Finally, Kornbluh said she hopes that “this is a time when we make a real shift in our mindset. And we realize this isn’t a game.”
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