Op-ed: Banning Trump from Twitter was a bandaid on a deeper wound


Illustration by Katie Mogg

Former President Donald J. Trump was banned from Twitter for inciting violence after the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Noah Colbert, contributor

Conservatives are in a tough spot. Last November, they went all in to support former President Donald J. Trump, screaming from the mountaintops about election fraud, furiously retweeting every poorly edited Project Veritas video that came their way, and vowing to “stop the steal.” Even after having their false claims blown out in court, conservatives forged ahead in their toxic pseudo-reality, getting in bed with QAnon and forsaking the cause of democracy. 

And two months later, Americans saw the sad fruits their faults produced, the blows they themselves induced. The U.S. Capitol was overrun by a violent mob, insurrectionists who sought to overthrow the government at the behest of Trump. These rioters worked in tandem with a majority of Republican lawmakers, some of whom actively aided the insurrection, who voted to overturn the election results. Seeking to execute any legislators who stood in their way, the terrorists injured over 140 Capitol police officers, including one who was bludgeoned to death (back the blue, right?).

So when Trump was rightfully banned from Twitter and thousands of QAnon and fascist accounts were suspended, conservatives found their diversion. Instead of addressing their complicity in the Capitol riots, conservatives have taken to protesting Trump’s ban from Twitter and rehashing their aggrieved censorship narrative.

Though unsurprising, the conservative obfuscation of the issues at play here is unfortunate, for they are a distraction from the truly concerning issue of unmitigated influence held by a select few Big Tech companies. Social media corporations cannot be trusted to curtail radicalization and misinformation in American politics that have occurred on their platforms. This predicament has nothing to do with “bias” against right wingers and everything to do with tech companies seeking the path of least resistance. 

Trump was an obvious candidate for being banned. He used his platform to harass people and spread lies. His actions would have gotten anyone else kicked off years ago, but he was given special treatment because Twitter considered him to be “newsworthy.” Trump himself said, “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here.” Trump’s Twitter fingers helped convince 70% of Republicans that the election was not free and fair. After Trump’s account was suspended, misinformation about the election dropped a whopping 73%. But the damage was done.

Trump nearly got his own vice president killed through his words before and during the riot. Minutes after rioters broke into the Capitol and came within 100 feet of the fleeing Mike Pence, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,” prompting his rabid brownshirts to chant “hang Mike Pence” and hunt for him as a gallow stood erected outside the building. Trump caused these people to believe that Pence had the power to single-handedly hand him the election. That lie had grave consequences. 

Being banned from Twitter is not a First Amendment issue, for Twitter is a private company and can do what it pleases (something conservatives use as justification for denying gay people service, by the way). Free speech itself does not even protect all speech; incitement to violence, which Trump undeniably engaged in, can cause legal consequences. If bad faith free speech absolutists were ideologically consistent, wouldn’t we see them crying foul when ISIS propaganda is blocked?

Conservatives take no issue with undue corporate influence; they dislike Big Tech merely because they feel victimized and targeted by it, though studies show this notion has no basis in fact. The narrative is entirely based on argument by anecdote. If there is any actual disproportionate banning of conservatives, it speaks more to their increased likelihood to send death threats, make racist remarks or incite violence. Most people don’t have trouble staying within terms of service; believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to not spread lies, make racist remarks or incite violence on Twitter! If social media companies cannot purge Nazis, bots and white supremacists without prominent conservatives getting caught up, what does that say about the movement Republicans have cultivated? 

Yet there is a case to be made that banning people and shutting down expression is not a solution to the broader problem of extremism, though Trump is a poor martyr for the cause. Trump and other conservatives crying censorship in front of massive audiences cannot be silenced, but normal people can be. 

Liberals should not believe that tech companies banned Trump for noble reasons. They did it because they were concerned about their own image. Social media companies have and will continue to use their ability to stifle discussion against the left. In 2018, Twitter purged the accounts of dozens of Occupy activists with zero explanation. Facebook suspended the accounts of anarchists and antifascists in the name of “fairness,” falsely equating them to murderous right-wing ideologies. Furthermore, Facebook collaborated with the Israeli government to quash criticism of its apartheid state, coming down harshly on what it deems “Palestinian incitement” but turning a blind eye to Israelis who celebrate crimes like the Israel Defense Force killings of Palestinians. 

Tech companies are directly responsible for the massive right-wing radicalization pipeline that has corrupted the minds of many Americans. The small performative actions they take to combat misinformation and extremism are dwarfed by how their algorithms incentivize and reward conspiracies, racism and other far-right content. According to Transparency Tube, “Partisan Right” YouTube content in the last year overlaps 42% with conspiracy, and 15% with QAnon. Conservatives dominate Facebook in particular, with their propaganda frequently topping the list of highest performing link posts. 

So much of American public discourse occurs on a few social media platforms, and it would be unwise to leave a couple of plutocrats to shut out whoever they see fit. Tech corporations must be broken up through antitrust laws and subjected to intense regulation. The government must step in to simultaneously protect the information and speech of social media users and stop tech giants from profiting off the poisoning of American discourse. Demonetizing political content, not suppressing it, will cut off the structures that cause dangerous content to proliferate while still promoting the Enlightenment principle of free speech. If we allow new and well-thought-out social platforms to pop up, there will no longer be a question of eliminating people from the “public square,” for there will be more than one. 

But this is a long ways away. So while Republicans cry censorship and cancel culture, I’m glad to see Trump go. 

Noah Colbert is a first-year combined mathematics and political science major. He can be reached at [email protected].