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Politics

Capitol Violence Sparks a Social Media Reckoning with Trump

All it took for social-media giants Twitter and Facebook to even temporarily bar President Donald Trump from addressing their vast audiences was a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, fueled by years of false statements, conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric from the president.

On Wednesday, in an unprecedented step,  the two companies temporarily suspended Trump from posting to their platforms after a mob of his supporters stormed the house of Congress. It was the most aggressive action either company has yet taken against Trump, who more than a decade ago embraced the immediacy and scale of Twitter to rally loyalists, castigate enemies and spread false rumors.

Twitter locked Trump out of his account for 12 hours and said that future violations could result in a permanent suspension. The company required the removal of three of Trump's tweets, including a short video in which he urged those supporters to "go home" while also repeating falsehoods about the integrity of the presidential election. Trump's account deleted those posts, Twitter said; had they remained, Twitter had threatened to extend his suspension.

Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns, followed up in the evening, announcing that Trump wouldn't be able to post for 24 hours following two violations of its policies. The White House did not immediately offer a response to the actions.

While some cheered the platforms' actions, experts noted that the companies' actions follow years of hemming and hawing on Trump and his supporters spreading dangerous misinformation and encouraging violence that have contributed to Wednesday's violence.

Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor and an expert on social media, said Wednesday's events in Washington, D.C. are a direct result of Trump's use of social media to spread propaganda and disinformation, and that the platforms should bear some responsibility for their inaction.

"This is what happens," Grygiel said. "We didn't just see a breach at the Capitol. Social media platforms have been breached by the president repeatedly. This is disinformation. This was a coup attempt in the United States."

Grygiel said the platform's decision to remove the video — and Twitter's suspension — are too little, too late.

"They're creeping along towards firmer action," Grygiel said, calling Trump "Exhibit A" for the need for greater regulation of social media. "Social media is complicit in this because he has repeatedly used social media to incite violence. It's a culmination of years of propaganda and abuse of media by the president of the United States." 

Trump posted the video more than two hours after protesters entered the Capitol, interrupting lawmakers meeting in an extraordinary joint session to confirm the Electoral College results and President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

So far, YouTube has not taken similar action to muzzle Trump, although it said it also removed Trump's video. But that video remained available as of Wednesday afternoon.

Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president of integrity, said on Twitter Wednesday that the video was removed because it "contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence." 

"This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump's video," Rosen said. 

Twitter initially left the video up but blocked people from being able to retweet it or comment on it. Only later in the day did the platform delete it entirely.

Trump opened his video saying, "I know your pain. I know your hurt. But you have to go home now."

After repeating false claims about voter fraud affecting the election, Trump went on to say: "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."

Republican lawmakers and previous administration officials had begged Trump to give a statement to his supporters to quell the violence. He posted his video as authorities struggled to take control of a chaotic situation at the Capitol that led to the evacuation of lawmakers and the death of at least one person.

Trump has harnessed social media — especially Twitter — as a potent tool for spreading misinformation about the election. Wednesday's riot only increased calls to ban Trump from the platform.

"The President has promoted sedition and incited violence," Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. "More than anything, what is happening right now at the Capitol is a direct result of the fear and disinformation that has been spewed consistently from the Oval Office."

In a statement Thursday morning, Trump said there would be an "orderly transition on January 20th" and acknowledged defeat in the election for the first time. His aides posted the statement on Twitter because his account remained suspended.

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