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The Problem With and Necessity Of Banning The President
Donald Trump was the President of the United States for four years, and many people disliked him for being both an awful, cruel person and extremely bad at the job, myself included. He was banned from both the Twitter and Facebook the day after the January 6th invasion of the capitol building (not, say, when he said “when the looting starts the shooting starts” or any number of other horrifying things he said) by hundreds of pissed off racist terrorists. Facebook’s oversight board, a group of people that are professionally engaged to sit around and go “hmmm” and then make the wrong decision, decided to say that Facebook was justified in banning Trump, but that they had to “reassess” the “penalty” of his indefinite ban.
Trump of course, despite being banned from social media, still got press about how mad he was about the whole thing and how unfair it was, and so on. He’s been totally deplatformed, and so much of his ability to disseminate information came from going on Twitter/Facebook and every single member of the media talking about it all day, regardless of its content. He lost his ability to create entire news cycles in seconds, or go on a rant about how Barbara Streisand had been “very cruel” in a radio interview in 1973. Many conservative demagogues do the same thing, creating miniature moments of shared chaos for their brain-melted fans by saying that Biden is going to try and ban us from eating more than one Hamburger a year. They thrive not on outright lies, but on lies of omission and influence - bad faith readings and intentionally-worded misleading statements that exist to drive people into a frenzy.
The difference is that none of those people are or were the President of the United States, and Donald Trump lacked any of that nuance. He continually spread racist dogma (which did not get him banned), blamed China for global warming, and continually spread lies about voter fraud. The ramifications of Dan Bongino or Ben Shapiro misleading and upsetting people are not small, but they are significantly smaller than the Commander In Chief doing so (Bongino remains unbanned on Facebook, but is banned on Twitter - the Bongino Report still exists).
Twitter has been declarative that Trump is permanently removed from the platform, likely recognizing the wide-ranging damage that he caused. Facebook, on the other hand, is clearing teeing up the opportunity to unban him in the future, knowing that their independent oversight board would likely give them the ability to unban him in the future, as he made lots of money for them and Mark Zuckerberg likes money. The specific mechanism they relied on - which has worked flawlessly - is that the Oversight Board can simply choose to kick a decision back to Facebook, totally invalidating the reason that the Oversight Board exists. When Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs said that he hoped the oversight board would “uphold the ban,” he clearly meant the ban that was initially made rather than the permanent one.
“As Facebook suspended Mr. Trump’s accounts ‘indefinitely,’ the company must reassess this penalty,” the board said. “It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”
This is exactly the thing that an oversight board should exist not to do - Facebook should be the blunt-force applier of rules that does not step outside of them, not the board. A group of academics was always going to rule in favor of keeping Trump on the platform - this is the ultimate job for people who’s entire job is to pontificate and seem smart, to find a philosophical and academic reason to keep a monstrous person on the platform in the name of “free speech.” Another quote:
“The Oversight Board is clearly telling Facebook they can’t invent new, unwritten rules when it suits them,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a co-chair of the Oversight Board and a former prime minister of Denmark, on a call with reporters.
Except…they can? And should? Facebook should absolutely invent new rules to deal with new things, such as, say, the President of the United States of America inciting violence. They can and should invent new rules to deal with new things, and Facebook’s oversight board so far has not really acted in the best interests of anyone other than Facebook. They have done the exact opposite of what an oversight board should do - they have chosen to give oversight back to the company that they have oversight upon, thus relieving themselves (and Facebook!) of responsibility. Facebook can say that they were made to choose to unban Trump or not unban Trump (I strongly believe they’re going to let him back on) and deflect any criticism by saying “oh, the oversight board told us to.” The oversight board will say that they made decisions based on the rules, and thus nobody will accept blame. It’s a perfect system.
Should They Have Banned Trump?
I actually believe both platforms should have banned Trump a long time ago, based on how they apply their rules to other people. They should’ve done it when he said to “not be afraid of COVID,” or at least suspended him for a week as a measure of saying “hey, stop saying shit like that,” though there is an argument that “not being afraid of COVID” is an opinion, which is part of the whole “medical science is politicized” thing that we all can thank Trump for pushing. Trump has shared doctored videos numerous times, which is against Twitter’s rules, and generally repeat offenders of Twitter’s rules get suspended or banned. The Big Lie tweets clearly hit their “civic integrity” rules:
Civic Integrity: You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process.
Despite that, he remained unbanned on Twitter until the invasion of the capitol building, because of the vague idea of his tweets being “of the public interest,” the same justification Facebook used. Facebook happily let election misinformation spread, and Twitter managed to curb it but still let Trump post misinformation.
I understand the issue here. Suppressing the ability for the President of the United States to communicate on a platform seems scary, but this was not something that was done because Donald Trump said something bad about Twitter or Facebook. It was done because he directly and transparently incited violence - not for all the hateful, horrible shit he spread, not even for the misinformation he spread, but because he incited violence. He shouldn’t come back because of that, but also because of all the other stuff he did, in the same way that being a hateful, cruel piece of shit should get you banned from Twitter or Facebook.
The argument that Trump is a public figure and thus his tweets are “of the public interest” makes no sense - Trump is not being “silenced,” he is being taken off of social media platforms. Does that mean he has less of a platform? Yes! Did he absolutely lose the right to use those platforms? Yes! If anything, his permanent ban should stand as an example of how the rules do apply to people in power, and the removal of said ban suggests that the rules do not apply to the powerful.
The idea that we absolutely need to hear what Trump would say on Facebook and Twitter is silly. He is still fully able to communicate - people still get his emails, he has his weird blog thing he does now, the media will still take his calls - but he cannot do so on the platforms he has clearly broken the rules on. The suggestion that Trump is owed anything is ridiculous - and should apply to anyone, on both sides. If Bernie Sanders or Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden went on a protracted rant about how COVID is a myth, they too should be suspended.
The fact that you are a public figure should make you more sensitive to the measures of the rules, not less, as the ramifications of your communications are more significant and more likely to cause actions in others. As a result, the rules should be more likely to apply to you - for the public good. Trump being the president or a former president does not give him the right to break the rules, and allowing him to do so, or allowing him to skate around them, only seeks to show that a social media platform is not democratic. There are already issues with the capriciousness of the application of bans and suspensions on these platforms, and if anything Trump’s ban should be permanent to partly show that nobody is above the law.
Unless, of course, these platforms wish to make arbitrary decisions for public figures, which is sort of what they’ve been doing. But the right way to do things is to equitably and directly apply these rules to public figures, to the point that some are regularly suspended or banned because they can’t abide by them. If we want fairness of expression, we have to apply it equally, and it starts with keeping Trump permanently rejected from social media platforms in which he operated as president.