I always figured that if Donald Trump got banned from Twitter, it would be for one of two reasons. Either he would tweet something beyond the pale even for him—an explicit death threat, say—or he would leave the White House and stop benefiting from Twitter’s lenient rules for public figures.
Neither scenario is how Trump’s Twitter career finally came to an apparent end. On Friday night, with just 12 days left in his presidency and two days after a mob of his supporters stormed the US Capitol, leading to several deaths, Twitter said it had permanently suspended Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” The pair of tweets that did him in, however, wouldn't even crack his thousand most egregious:
“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
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To understand how these seemingly anodyne tweets (by Trump’s standards, anyway) got the president of the United States kicked off Twitter, we have to go back to Wednesday’s lethal chaos. Hours into the siege of the Capitol, Trump released a short video telling the rioters to “go home.” But in the video, he also repeated the false claim motivating the riot, namely that the election had been stolen from him. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all took the post down. In their eyes, the video was more likely to cause violence than quell it. By Thursday, both Facebook and Twitter had frozen Trump’s accounts—finally taking the dramatic step they had avoided throughout his presidency.
As I wrote on Thursday, the striking thing about the account suspensions was that Trump had really not crossed any new line; as outrageous as his message was, he at least told his followers to stand down. The rest was just classic Trump. Falsely claiming election fraud and praising even his most despicable followers is simply what the man does, and has done for the past four-odd years. What changed, then, was not Trump’s behavior on the platforms but rather the facts on the ground: With the Capitol ransacked and blood spilled, the hypothesis that Trump’s language could incite violence had been replaced by the straightforward fact that it had.
While Facebook locked Trump’s account indefinitely, Twitter announced a temporary suspension. Trump could start tweeting again 12 hours after he deleted the video and a couple of other tweets repeating the stolen-election myth. But, Twitter warned, further violations would result in a permanent ban.
At that point, the die was basically cast. Trump had no chance of staying on the platform the moment he let slip anything remotely Trumpian. The company’s somewhat tortured analysis explaining its decision Friday strongly suggests as much. According to Twitter, for example, Trump’s use of the words “American Patriots” to describe his supporters was “being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.” His insistence that “they will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!,” meanwhile, was a sign that Trump does not “plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition.’”
This all feels like a bit of a stretch—more like a literature-seminar close reading than the enforcement of an intelligible content policy. And yet Twitter isn’t exactly wrong. Many of Trump’s online followers really were interpreting his tweets as coded messages and even calls to action. Twitter’s explanation pointed to chatter “on and off Twitter” about a proposed second Capitol assault on January 17. The fact that Trump’s posts were fueling the conspiracy fire was clear wherever you looked earlier Friday—on Twitter before he was banned or on alternative platforms, like Parler, favored by the right wing. Some QAnon believers, for instance, appear to have read Trump’s “GIANT VOICE” comment as a reference to a type of military warning system—and, perhaps, an order to his most militant followers to be on standby. The conspiracy-minded set of Trump voters engages in more fine-grained semiotics than any Sarah Lawrence English major.
In the end, then, what took down @realDonaldTrump was not what he tweeted, but the way his followers were interpreting it. In the specific context of this week—and given the threat of further violence by a radicalized Trump base convinced that their country is being stolen—that may be an understandable position for Twitter to take. It does not, however, make for a sustainable approach to content moderation moving forward. Few people would stand for a system in which users can be punished for the lunatic interpretations of their followers. I suspect that Twitter’s Trump ban will go down as a sort of social media Bush v. Gore—a one-off decision cobbled together in extraordinary circumstances that even its architects don’t intend to treat as precedent in the future.