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‘This is not normal’: Behind the decisions at Facebook and Twitter to deplatform Trump

‘This is not normal’: Behind the decisions at Facebook and Twitter to deplatform Trump

Mark Zuckerberg started to consider placing an indefinite suspension on President Donald Trump's Facebook account late on the night of Jan. 6, just ho

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Mark Zuckerberg started to consider placing an indefinite suspension on President Donald Trump’s Facebook account late on the night of Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of the president’s supporters stormed the Capitol.

The Facebook CEO had for years taken a mostly hands-off approach to the president’s false and incendiary claims, championing free expression and the newsworthiness of Trump’s statements even as a growing chorus of critics both outside and inside the company called for him to take more aggressive action.

But after a series of conversations with his top lieutenants, including chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, head of policy Monica Bickert, global affairs chief Nick Clegg and Joel Kaplan, the company’s public policy chief and its top emissary to Republicans in Washington, Zuckerberg had come to believe that Trump’s brazen incitement of violence in an effort to overturn the election crossed a line, according to people familiar with the conversation who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.

Earlier on Wednesday, Facebook had placed a 24-hour ban on Trump’s account. Now, Zuckerberg was preparing for the prospect of placing a far more extensive ban on the president: one that would last at least through the end of his term.

Jan. 11, 202102:21

Early the next morning, from his vacation home in Kauai, Hawaii, Zuckerberg held a phone call with a group of executives, including Sandberg, Bickert, Clegg and Kaplan. Guy Rosen, vice president of integrity, was on the call, along with public policy director Neil Potts and chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, among several others.

Zuckerberg said he had decided that Trump’s attempts to incite violence and undermine the democratic process were grounds for an indefinite suspension. No one on the call voiced a dissenting opinion, the people familiar with the call said.

Shortly thereafter, Zuckerberg published a Facebook post explaining that “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”

That same day, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was considering a far more radical move, sources familiar with Twitter’s deliberations said. Based on the counsel of Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s legal chief and his most trusted lieutenant, Dorsey had come to believe that the appropriate course of action was to ban Trump’s personal account permanently, on the grounds that his ability to post presented a risk to public safety.

Dorsey was in French Polynesia at the time, having spent much of the past year away from the Bay Area and largely preoccupied with other projects: Square, his mobile payment company; the future of cryptocurrency; and a potential acquisition of Jay-Z’s music streaming platform, Tidal. (Dorsey has spent a great deal of time with Jay-Z in recent months, in both Hawaii and the Hamptons.)

After a series of conversations with Gadde and other top Twitter executives, Dorsey approved of a permanent ban, even though he would later express reservations over his power to so heavily influence “the global public conversation.” Twitter announced the ban on Friday.

The Facebook and Twitter suspensions represented a landmark moment for America’s social media giants and the most visible demonstration yet of their absolute power. With a few unilateral decisions, a small group of tech executives deprived the president of the United States of his most influential broadcasting tools, curtailing his ability to command the nation’s attention and drive the news cycle from his mobile phone at a moment’s notice.

For more than four years, Trump had harnessed his social media accounts to drive the news cycle, set policy, move markets and rile up his base, often issuing statements or making declarations before his own aides were aware of his plans. Within a short span of time, he had lost almost all access to his preferred microphone.

Twitter and Facebook were the first of many companies to take action. In the days that followed, Google suspended Trump’s YouTube channel, Reddit banned some pro-Trump forums, and Snapchat, which had already limited the president’s activity on its network, announced that it would permanently ban his account starting on Jan. 20, the final day of his presidency.

Since the suspensions went into place, Trump’s presence in the fast-moving news cycle has been relatively minimal. He has been forced to release videos and statements through the news media, official press releases and, on Wednesday, via the White House Twitter account, which has just 26 million followers, less than a third of the audience he commanded through his personal account. (Twitter said Trump’s use of the White House account did not violate its ban.) Otherwise, the president has hardly been heard from.

Executives at Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere believe they made the right decision in implementing these bans, but they also have reservations about their own power.

“The cost of this decision is that it sheds light on the fact that a small group of individuals get to make these decisions,” one Facebook executive involved in the deliberations about the suspension of Trump’s account said.

But platforms were not the only companies to highlight how the power of the internet is concentrated. Shortly after Facebook and Twitter suspended the president’s accounts, tech companies even more central to the Internet put their power on display: Apple and Google removed Parler, a social networking app popular among Trump supporters, from their respective app stores for failing to prevent violent speech, and Amazon stopped hosting the app on its AWS web-hosting service. Parler chief executive John Matze said Wednesday the app, which claims 12 million users, may never return.

In a lengthy Twitter thread this week, Dorsey said that Twitter’s decision to ban the president could set a “dangerous” precedent, highlighting “the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

But he also pointed to the companies that control more than just their own platforms.

“This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet,” Dorsey said of Apple, Google and Amazon’s decisions. “A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.”

The president and his allies have also raised alarm over these moves. The president, in a video posted to the official White House Twitter account on Wednesday, criticized “the efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens.”

Democratic lawmakers, including those who have long criticized the growing power of the big tech firms, appear to be less troubled by the platforms’ actions against Trump and his supporters. They note that the First Amendment does not prohibit private businesses from deciding what it hosts on its platforms and they applaud the suspensions — even if they believe they should have happened earlier.

“Platforms are companies. They have user agreements,” said Rachel Cohen, a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a vocal advocate for greater regulation of big tech. “When someone is in violation of the platform standards they should be held accountable.”

Both companies have long made special rules for Trump and other world leaders on the grounds that even the most controversial posts have significant news value. Most of Trump’s controversial posts have thus remained on those platforms, sometimes placed behind warning labels, sometimes not.

The Facebook and Twitter decisions were a response to a very specific situation, sources at both companies said. A specifically influential actor was inciting violence and threatening the democratic process, and his words were having a demonstrable effect in the real world.

In explaining its ban, Twitter did not merely say that Trump’s words might inspire people to violence. It also cited “multiple indicators” that those words were “being received and understood” as an incitement to violence.

Now, the precedent has been set. And while these platforms may never again encounter a situation as dire and extreme as the one they faced last week, the entire world has seen just how much power tech companies wield and the realization that these executives can take drastic action when necessary — altering the course of world history from tropical retreats in the Pacific Ocean — without any external laws or guidelines.

“This is not normal,” one Facebook executive said. “These are extraordinary circumstances. We don’t have a policy for what to do when a sitting president starts a coup.”

Source: | This article originally belongs to Nbcnews.com

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