Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Donald Trump’s account in the wake of the storming of Capitol Hill on Wednesday continues to stoke fierce debate, supporters and critics split on partisan lines as they contest what the suspension means for a cherished American tradition: freedom of speech.
Republicans – many using Twitter – decried Trump’s removal and claimed conservative beliefs and opinions are being censored.
“Big Tech censoring [Trump] and the free speech of American citizens is on par with communist countries like China and North Korea,” tweeted Steve Daines, a senator from Montana.
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr said: “Free speech is dead and controlled by leftist overlords.”
Democrats argued that the company had the legal right to make the decision – which they said was long overdue.
“It took blood & glass in the halls of Congress – and a change in the political winds – for the most powerful tech companies to recognise, at the last possible moment, the threat of Trump,” tweeted Senator Richard Blumenthal, from Connecticut.
Trump’s suspension came two days after the US Capitol saw a violent attack by supporters of the president, who has for months spread false information about the election and encouraged his followers to contest the result.
Two tweets the president posted on Friday proved the last straw. Trump tweeted that his supporters “will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future” and said he would not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration. Twitter said the tweets were “highly likely to encourage and inspire people” to replicate the Capitol attacks. Reports of secondary attacks have been spreading among extremist social media groups.
Debate has been going on for years about the role social media companies should play in moderating content.
Conservatives are adamant companies should be punished for what they say is censorship that the Republican Study Committee, a caucus in the House of Representatives, wrote on Twitter “runs contrary to the principle behind our first amendment”.
Tiffany Trump, the president’s daughter, used the social media site Parler, popular among conservatives and also subject to controversy over its policies, to say: “Whatever happened to freedom of speech?”
Republicans claim Twitter’s move violates the first amendment of the US constitution. Others argue that the first amendment says the government cannot restrict speech, but social media companies are private entities.
“[The first amendment] doesn’t give anyone the right to a particular platform, publisher or audience; in fact, it protects the right of private entities to choose what they want to say or hear,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law – on Twitter.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exempts social media platforms from legal liability for user-generated content. Republicans including Trump say Congress could curtail social media companies through reform to the law.
But Republicans are no longer in control of Congress and activists and Democratic lawmakers said actions taken this week – Facebook has banned Trump for at least two weeks and Google removed Parler from its app store – are what they have been advocating for years. The attack on the Capitol, they said, showed a breaking point had been reached.
Misinformation experts and civil rights activists claimed that the platforms were culpable for the attack.
“[The violence] is a direct response to the misinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech that have been allowed to spread on social media platforms,” Jim Steyer, who leads Common Sense Media, an advocacy group which organized the Stop the Hate for Profit campaign that encouraged advertisers to boycott Facebook over hate speech concerns, told the Guardian.
Many Democratic lawmakers have been critical of social media companies but have yet to propose specific actions to curtail them.
“It’s important to remember, this is much bigger than one person,” wrote Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, incoming chair of the Senate intelligence committee – on Twitter.
“It’s about an entire ecosystem that allows misinformation and hate to spread and fester unchecked.”