We finally know what it takes for Donald Trump to get suspended from social media.
As of Thursday morning, following a day in which a mob of the president’s supporters violently invaded the US Capitol, the president’s Twitter account was temporarily frozen; YouTube had taken down his latest video; and, most remarkably, Mark Zuckerberg had announced that Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were suspended indefinitely.
How did we get here? The sequence that led to Trump’s suspension for inciting violence began, ironically, with him calling for peace. A few minutes after president-elect Joe Biden gave a speech urging him to call off the mob, Trump released a brief recorded video in which he told his supporters to “go home.” The trouble is that he couldn’t resist insisting that the election had been stolen—the precise false claim underlying the day’s chaos. Soon, Facebook and YouTube had taken the video down, and Twitter had added a fact-check label and blocked users from liking, retweeting, or replying to it. (Eventually Twitter took it down as well.) Facebook and Twitter also removed similar posts in which Trump called backhandedly for peace while repeating his rigged election claims. As Facebook put it in a blog post, the video and posts were likely to “contribute to, rather than diminish, the risk of ongoing violence.”
Taken in isolation—and hold that thought, we’ll come back to it—that explanation struck me as odd. Trump’s announcement was short; you may as well read the whole thing:
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt. It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home and go home at peace.”
This was demented stuff—classic Trump—but I struggle to read it as an incitement to further violence. Yes, he repeated the “stolen” myth; but his supporters had already been steeping in that particular brew for months. What was new here was Trump telling them repeatedly to go home. I went to Parler, the self-styled “free speech” platform and de facto right-wing Twitter, to see how the video was being received by Trump’s supporters. Judging from the comments, many were furious or disappointed, or insisted that the rioters were really Antifa plants, but they also were interpreting Trump’s message literally—that is, as a call to stand down. (Whether anyone already in the mob was likely to pause and watch a video is another question.)
Why did the big platforms conclude otherwise? In an internal memo obtained by the New York Times’s Mike Isaac, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the video as “expressing support for the people causing the violence.” The fact that Trump told the rioters that he loved them, that they’re “special,” was more salient than his calls for peace. In a way, it was Charlottesville 2.0: a replay of the moment when Trump, by way of attempting to condemn white supremacist violence, insisted that there were “very fine people” taking part in the infamous Unite the Right rally.