Facebook said Thursday it is banning President Trump until the end of his presidency and possibly longer. It is the most forceful action a social network has taken against Trump, who has spent months using social media to amplify disinformation and cast doubt on his loss in the presidential election.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that removing or labeling Trump's posts is not enough in the current environment in which Trump has used Facebook to encourage mob violence on the U.S. Capitol.
"We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great," Zuckerberg wrote. "Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete."
On Wednesday, as police in Washington, D.C. struggled to regain control of the U.S. Capitol, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube removed a video in which the president peddled baseless claims about the election and expressed sympathy for those who ransacked the building and forced emergency evacuations.
Twitter forced Trump to remove three posts, including the video, and suspended his account as a warning for 12 hours. Officials at Twitter said if Trump does not stop spreading disinformation about the election and glorifying violence, he will be permanently kicked off the platform.
On Facebook, Trump was also placed in a probationary period, but for 24 hours. Now, that ban will run until President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20 and perhaps remain in place even longer.
The decisions by Facebook and Twitter to clamp down on Trump's rhetoric in the final days of his term follow years of calls from disinformation researchers, civil rights groups and others to ban the president over his repeat violations of platform rules.
"It's incredible that it took an attempted insurrection for Facebook to take seriously the rhetoric that Trump has been spreading and the way he's use his platform, especially these last few crucial months," said Emerson Brooking, a researcher and disinformation expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Even so, Brooking said muzzling Trump, even temporarily, on the world's largest social network will lessen the rapid proliferation of some conspiratorial claims.
"It is going to demonstrably reduce the spread of dis- and misinformation because Trump has been that critical link, which sees these theories go from being localized to mainstreamed," he said.
Trump, who reaches more than 100 million followers combined by sharing posts to Facebook and Twitter, has used social media to build his political career, as the companies have taken a mostly hands-off approach to his content.
In an effort to limit the spread of misleading posts about the coronavirus, the election and other topics, Facebook and Twitter in recent months have been affixing warning labels on Trump posts to indicate that the information is in dispute.
Those measures fueled a battle between the White House and Silicon Valley in which the president signed executive orders and rallied his base around the idea of stripping social media companies of a key legal protection that has allowed them to set their own content rules and avoid litigation for what is posted to the sites.
In his post on Thursday, Zuckerberg wrote that he still believes that the public has the right to "the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech," but that this time is distinct.
"The current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government," Zuckerberg wrote.
University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, who studies disinformation in moments of crisis, echoed what many experts in her field have said since the mob swarmed the Capitol: Everyone is finally seeing what online researchers have been documenting for years.
"Wearing their war paint, waving their flags, & ranting about conspiracy theories ... inside the U.S. Capitol. These aren't bots or Russian trolls. They're 'real' Americans, profoundly misled, thinking they are patriots as they attempt to dismantle democracy in service of a mad king," Starbird wrote on Twitter.
Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor and an expert on social media, said Thursday's announcement is too little, too late after Facebook allowed Trump to find an enormous audience online with harmful content.
"Facebook policies have enabled the president for years," she said.
Editor's note: Facebook and Google are among NPR's financial supporters.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Facebook said today it will continue to block President Trump's account to ensure a peaceful transition. The platform will not let Trump post again until he leaves office and possibly for longer than that. This is the biggest move from social media companies after the riots that took over the U.S. Capitol yesterday. NPR's Bobby Allyn has been covering the story and joins us now.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: So what was the rationale that Facebook gave for its decision today? And we should note first that Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR.
ALLYN: So Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a public post that he believes in politicians, you know, having the ability to speak freely on Facebook, even when it's controversial. But Trump has gone too far, Zuckerberg says. He specifically pointed to the mob violence that we saw on the Capitol yesterday and said, quote, "we believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great." In other words, Zuckerberg is worried that Trump could use the social network to stoke more violence. And so Trump, like you said, will be blocked at least until President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. Now, people like Emerson Brooking have been studying how Trump uses Facebook for years now. Brooking is at the Washington think tank the Atlantic Council. Here's his take.
EMERSON BROOKING: It's incredible that it took an attempted insurrection for Facebook to take this seriously - the rhetoric that Trump has been spreading and the way he's used his platform, especially these last few crucial months.
CHANG: And, Bobby, I guess Facebook totally has the power to do this, right? I mean, it really does not matter that Trump is the president here.
ALLYN: That's right. So Facebook, by law, has all the power in deciding what's on their site, you know, whether it's your grandma posting or President Trump.
ALLYN: Yeah. That said, Facebook and Twitter are, you know, basically modern-day public squares. So the idea of free speech, like, the spirit of free speech is definitely embedded on social media in how people use it, but it is not a legal guarantee. And here Facebook is censoring Trump. But Zuckerberg says, on balance, trying to limit additional mayhem across the country is the most important thing.
CHANG: OK, so that's Facebook. But Twitter obviously seems to be the president's preferred method of communication. Tell us, what is Twitter doing right now?
ALLYN: Yeah. So yesterday, Twitter forced Trump to take down three posts that were glorifying violence and peddling false election claims. Twitter locked down his account for 12 hours. If Trump keeps abusing the rules, Twitter says they're going to blacklist Trump for life from Twitter. So far, the president is following the rules. Earlier this evening, he released his first video since the ban. It was a video in which he actually condemned the violence, and he promised a peaceful transition.
CHANG: But ultimately, what's the significance of these moves by Twitter, especially if President Trump gets his Twitter account back, even if it's just temporarily?
ALLYN: Yeah, they are huge steps for the company. Let's be clear about that. But, you know, Brookings (ph) from the Atlantic Council says Trump being banned on Facebook - that doesn't mean that, you know, these conspiracy theories are just going to vanish from the Internet.
BROOKING: But it is going to demonstrably reduce the spread of dis- and misinformation because Trump has been that critical link which sees these theories go from being localized to mainstreamed.
ALLYN: Yeah, what Brookings (ph) is saying is when researchers like him trace how conspiracy theories go viral, often, they find themselves landing on Trump's Facebook and Twitter accounts. And, you know, if Twitter is true to its word, the next time Trump shares something that violates its rules, he's going to be booted from the platform forever.
CHANG: That is NPR's Bobby Allyn.
Thank you, Bobby.
ALLYN: Hey, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.