Facebook and Twitter suspending Trump won’t fix the problem, experts say

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Facebook, Twitter, and streaming-service Twitch all suspended President Trump’s accounts within the past day for inciting violence, marking the first time the social media companies have blocked him, even if only temporarily, from their services.

But experts say the bans won’t prevent Trump from inciting violence in the future. 

“The imminent problems [on these services] are continuing to rise,” said Gautam Hans, director of Vanderbilt University’s Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic. “I don’t think this is going away.”

The bans came after Trump supporters laid siege to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, incited by unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election. The rioters overpowered police, broke windows, and entered the legislative chambers as well as the offices of several Congress members.

In response to the violence, Trump posted a video on social media on Wednesday in which he said that he understood rioters frustration and that he loved them.

Eventually, Twitter removed the video and suspended Trump’s account, only to reinstate it Thursday after he deleted the violating tweets. Trump used the account on Thursday to concede the election.

Meanwhile, Facebook also removed the video on Wednesday and, then, today, said it had suspended his account “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.”

And Twitch, owned by Amazon, also banned Trump indefinitely. 

For years, Twitter and Facebook have struggled with how to handle Trump’s tweets, which often include misinformation and references to violence. They’ve gone from doing nothing to adding warning labels to some of his posts that they think go over the line.

“This has been a steady momentum build of reaction by social media platforms,” said Sinan Aral, an MIT researcher focused on social media. “This is a culmination of an understanding of social media companies that they need to do more that the laissez-faire attitude isn’t going to cut it.”

But the bans won’t necessarily change Trump’s future behavior—assuming he’s reinstated—or absolve social media services from their role in helping Trump amplify his past incitement, the social media experts said. Nor will the bans solve the widespread problem of other influential figures posting messages that could incite violence.

On Thursday, former First Lady Michelle Obama criticized social media companies for doing little to stop Trump over the years. “Now is the time for Silicon Valley companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior-and go even further than they have by permanently banning this man from their platforms and putting in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation’s leaders to fuel insurrection,” she said in a statement.

Mark Shmulik, tech analyst at brokerage firm AB Bernstein, said he doesn’t expect the atmosphere on social media to change because of the recent Trump bans.

“If anything, there’s a clear argument that this will just incite mores scrutiny from people like Ted Cruz,” he said about the Republican Senator from Texas and Trump supporter who has claimed that social media is biased against conservatives. “If their complaint was social media is silencing voices now … they have a clear example.”

Aral agreed, saying: “I don’t think Ted Cruz is going to say, ‘Oh, they banned Trump? I better stop tweeting what I’m tweeting.’”

Trump loyalists may end up helping spread Trump’s message even without Trump on the services. “It’s a lot like playing whack-a-mole,” said Mike Horning, a director at the Center for Human Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech. “You try to stop one claim and another one pops up. It’s really hard to stop.”

Aral said the solution is to address four areas: the companies’ ad-driven business models that favor increasing eyeballs, and algorithms that can promote harmful content. He also pointed to stronger content policies from the companies based around what society deems acceptable and legislation that could provide new content rules for social media. And though the companies’ don’t have control over all four areas, they can achieve some progress by improving what they can.

Shmulik said the issue is an ongoing problem for these companies’ businesses, whose reputation continues to suffer. And as a new Biden administration steps in, there likely could be more consequences ahead—for the social media companies.

“If I’m Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, this is causing me to lose sleep,” he said. “This is not why I got into the business.”

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