Why Big Tech, U.S. Conservatives Battle Over Speech

When Twitterbanned President Donald Trump after a mob he had encouraged stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the White House fell into an unusual social media silence. But the company’s move, followed by actions by Facebook,Apple, Google andAmazon to cut off individual users or social media platforms they saw as inciting violence, turned a simmering feud with conservatives into a full-throated battle. Trump supporters complained their free speech rights were being limited, but many liberals applauded what they saw as overdue steps to limit misinformation and prevent bloodshed.

1. What happened?

Some individual users on large social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are being blocked, the most high-profile, of course, being Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter handle, with 88 million followers. Trump was permanently banned on Jan. 8, “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” according to the company. Facebook (and Instagram, which it owns)have suspended Trump until at least the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, arguing Trump intended to use his time left in office to undermine the peaceful transition of power. Butactions were taken by other tech players as well.

2. Who did what?

Apple and Google, which is owned byAlphabet Inc., closed their online stores to an app they saw as containing content that may have stoked the riots in the Capitol, seeking to avoid further incitements to violence: Parler, a social media network that gained traction last fall among conservatives who complained of censorship elsewhere, had its app pulled from the iPhone App Store and Google Play, making it almost impossible to download the service to a mobile device. And Amazon Web Services cut Parler’s access to the servers on which it had been hosted early Monday, saying it wouldn’t provide services to “a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence.” Parler, which said it was not able to immediately find another web hosting company willing to accept it,filed an antitrust suit against Amazon on Jan. 11 in an effort to force it to restore service.

3. What was the reaction?

Trump, who was briefly able to keep tweeting under the @POTUS handle before Twitter cut that off, charged that Twitter had coordinated with the Democrats to silence him. That post has since been removed. Other conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr., charged that the companies were violating their rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Democrats and others pointed out that the Amendment protects against government-imposed restrictions on speech but leaves private companies free to regulate speech within their businesses as they see fit. Legal experts said that Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the others were within their rights to enforce their terms of service on users.

4. How did we get here?

The presidential election of 2016, in which Trump wielded Twitter as a megaphone and groups tied toRussia posted disinformation on Facebook, led to a torrent of criticism for social media companies and forced them to rethink what many saw as “anything goes” policies for politicians. But relatively little changed until this year, as both platforms argued that what a president said was too important to be restricted. It was only this past May when Twitter first added a fact-check label to two Trump tweets that made unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting. Those were followed by arule-violation notice on another May tweet by Trump warning police-brutality protesters in Minnesota that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

5. What have they done about other users?

Until the 2020 campaign, platforms like Facebook had done relatively little about misinformation or other posts likely to cause “real world” harm. This was apparent last summer in the case of users who called themselves the “Kenosha Guard.” They used a Facebook Group to encourage citizens to take weapons to Kenosha, Wisconsin, amid protests over the police shooting of a Black man. It was eventually taken down, but evenFacebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said the company was too slow to remove a page that violated its policy on dangerous organizations. Two people were killed and a third was injured at the protests, allegedly by a teenager who had been drawn to the scene by the Facebook page. Zuckerberg said keeping the post up was “largely an operational mistake,” and that Facebook reviewers didn’t identify it as a violation in part because the rules against militia groups were new.

6. How has the conflict with conservatives grown?

After Twitter first labeled those tweets by President Trump in May, he responded with an executive order aimed at “preventing online censorship.” Trump also demanded the revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision that shields internet companies from liability for most of the material their users post. Section 230 also provides legal immunity concerning “any action voluntarily taken in good faith” to remove materials from their platforms. Additionally, Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey werecalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall to defend against charges of silencing conservative voices — most notably in reaction to the platforms’ handling of aNew York Post article on Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son. Twitter and Facebook had curbed the spread of the piece by placing restrictions on sharing the link and putting a warning notice before linking to the article amid uncertainty over the veracity of the report’s claims. Trump vetoed a defense spending bill in part because it did not get rid of Section 230, although his veto was overridden byCongress. But in the event social media companies lose some Section 230 legal liability protection, the expected result would be the platforms changing their algorithms to limit that problematic content — the same type of content that got the president banned in the first place.

7. What’s the upshot of all this?

It’s too soon to tell, but there are some signs that conservative voices and users of Parler are moving to other platforms. Brian Krebs, a technology blogger, said that a number of people he followed seemed to be moving to Signal, an encrypted messaging service, while a group put up a page called Parler Lifeboat on the encrypted messaging app Telegram as a place for discussions to run temporarily. That raised concerns that more extreme voices might be pushed further toward the fringes of the internet, including the so-called dark web, where activity is largely untraceable and anonymous.

The Reference Shelf

  • Mark Zuckerberg’sstatement about suspending Trump from Facebook and Instagram.
  • Twitter’sstatement about its permanent ban on Trump.
  • A QuickTake about complaints from politicians about Twitter and Facebook.
  • AQuickTake on Section 230, the legal provision protecting internet companies from most liability over user-generated content.

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