Besides President Trump himself, a portion of the responsibility for this attack on our democracy also rests on the shoulders of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, and to a lesser extent, on Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives whose platforms have allowed Trump and his allies and supporters to spread malicious untruths about the 2020 election.
With the horrifying images of a Capitol under siege still glowing on most of our screens and amid pressure from groups like the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League and Free Press, it comes as little surprise that on Wednesday, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all took action on Trump’s posts.
Social networks should have held Trump to the same standards as other users from the start. The first few times he shared mistruths or used abusive language, his posts should have been immediately removed and he should have been issued warnings. If he then continued to share misinformation or hate, his accounts should have been permanently suspended. If this had happened, our Capitol might never have come under siege.
In addition to lying more as he realized he could get away with it, he also began to use more abusive language. As Helio Fred Garcia wrote in his 2020 book “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,” “over time, the frequency and intensity of Trump’s language (on social media as well as in speeches and with the media) changed. Without anyone or anything to stop it … he became more aggressive and his language more directly incendiary when discrediting his political rivals.” And, predictably, Garcia noted, after Trump insulted members of different groups, hate crimes against them spiked. So, let’s be clear: This is not the first time he has incited violence.
Yet, because he enjoyed this impunity, Trump was able to build a base on Twitter that actually believes his mistruths. Now, the problem is that we have a huge number of citizens who falsely think the election was stolen and stormed the Capitol as a result.
While shuttering Trump’s Twitter account now would make it too late to alter today’s disturbing threat to democracy, we still need to prevent this from happening again anywhere. Being a world leader should not exempt anyone from being required to follow the community standards that apply to other Twitter users. No one should use the platform to spread hate and misinformation. Jack Dorsey should change this policy today.
It’s true that Trump probably did have the power to end this faster and more bloodlessly with a single tweet or address than was possible through any other channel. But our democracy can’t hinge on the claims of a single person who lies and incites violence. We have to be stronger than this. We need institutions that keep us safe and ensure a peaceful transfer of power — including the Congress, which clearly needs better security. And we need social networks that don’t spread hate and lies.
While all eyes have been on Trump this afternoon, they should also turn to Jack Dorsey, who holds extraordinary power to help prevent future attacks on our democracy. In the long term, it’s social media platforms who have to make the next move.