Twitter Locks Trump's Account, Warns Of 'Permanent Suspension' If Violations Continue

Jan 6, 2021
Originally published on January 7, 2021 7:38 am

Twitter on Wednesday put President Trump on notice: If he does not stop breaking the platform's rules, he will be permanently banned.

The stern warning followed another step never before taken by Twitter: It locked Trump out of his account for 12 hours after the removal of three tweets that the company said were a "severe violation" of Twitter's rules.

Once Trump's time-out expires on Twitter, the company said it may boot the president off the platform for good if his sharing of election-relation disinformation and glorifications of violence continue.

Facebook deleted the same video Twitter acted on and blocked Trump's account from sharing messages for 24 hours, but the social network did not say it was considering a permanent suspension of Trump.

Among the tweets that Twitter removed from public view was a video addressed to the mob that violently swarmed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. In the video, Trump said he loved those supporters, even as he told them to go home. He also fanned conspiracy theories that the presidential election was stolen from him.

In the two other tweets removed, Trump falsely suggested he had won the presidential election.

Twitter, taking the boldest enforcement action to date against Trump, has faced months of accusations that it has not done enough to limit the spread of Trump's groundless attacks on the democratic election he lost and incitements of violence sent to his millions of followers.

The social media platform has slapped warning labels on dozens of Trump's tweets to limit the spread, in addition to other steps taken to prevent Trump messages laced with falsehoods from going viral. But many onlookers say Twitter has been ineffective in curbing the reach of Trump's misleading and incendiary material.

"As someone who has served on your Trust and Safety Board since its inception and counseled you since 2009, time is now to suspend President Trump's account," said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia, in a tweet. "He has deliberately incited violence, causing mayhem with his lies and threats."

Many world leaders, including Trump, have enjoyed more freedom than ordinary users to share messages on Facebook and Twitter, since the platforms consider their comments political speech that has public value. Yet critics say that rule has enabled Trump to turn conspiracies viral, most recently Trump's repeated airing of baseless allegations about the November election.

In indicating that Trump could soon be banished from the platform, Twitter may be re-examining how that rule applies to Trump.

On Wednesday, the melee on the Capitol drew calls from Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates for Trump to be kicked off Twitter and Facebook over a long pattern of abusing the platforms.

"Trump is inciting violence and spreading dangerous misinformation that is undermining our democracy and our way of life. Social media continues to amplify his anti-democratic rhetoric," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who added that Twitter and Facebook should "remove Trump from their platforms."

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said the insurrection on the Capitol staged by some of Trump's most ardent supporters was the direct result of fear and disinformation that has been supercharged by social media companies.

"Social media companies should suspend his accounts ASAP as they would do for anyone else advocating disinformation and promoting violence," Greenblatt said. "It's time."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Twitter and Facebook have locked the president, the departing president, out of his accounts. They acted after President Trump posted a video that was advertised yesterday afternoon as a message to calm the insurrection but instead was filled with disinformation and sympathy for the Capitol attackers. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn is on the line. Good morning.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how did this unfold yesterday?

ALLYN: So after rioters caused an emergency evacuation at the Capitol, Trump posted this 62-second video, as you mentioned, telling them to go home, but it was a mixed message. He also said he loved them and that they were, quote, "very special." He then used the video to fan outright lies about the election, and Twitter had the video removed. Twitter also took action against two other tweets from Trump that were falsely claiming victory in the election he lost. Twitter then locked down the president's account for 12 hours and put Trump on notice, basically saying, if you keep trying to sow doubt about this election, we're going to kick you off this platform for good.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking this through, though. I was able to see this video on Twitter before it was taken down. I've been able to see plenty of other things that the president has said that are blindingly false. The video spread on other Internet platforms. How are other platforms responding?

ALLYN: Right. And that's what critics say, this was too little, too late. Facebook also took down the video and placed Trump in a 24-hour timeout. YouTube removed it as well, but it found an audience. It found you and 11 million other people on Twitter alone. So the president had no trouble getting his message out here, that is, Steve, when he wanted to, right? In the hours leading up to this video as calls were mounting across the political spectrum for Trump to discourage this mob as they were ransacking the Capitol, Trump remained silent. He said nothing.

INSKEEP: It is remarkable. Any other president in the history of video, anyway, would have gone on television and said something to the nation. But the president chose this means to speak specifically to the people that he wanted to reach and seems to have reached a lot of them. What are people who study misinformation saying about this?

ALLYN: Yeah. So Facebook and Twitter have long been criticized, you know, for not doing enough to curb the spread of disinformation, and their favorite response to falsehoods lately has been slapping these warning labels on tweets. You know, we probably have seen them on Facebook and Twitter saying this, you know, claim here may be disputed. But researchers say if you need any proof that misleading information amplified by social media can lead to real-world violence, look no further than the really terrifying events that unfolded on the Capitol yesterday. And sometimes it's the president himself who makes the conspiratorial ideas go viral and he's whipping up his supporters into a frenzy with false claims. So to answer your question, the people who study misinformation are saying these punishments against Trump, they are welcome. But like I already said, it's kind of too little, too late.

INSKEEP: Doesn't he also have a lot of other means to get his message out? There are media organizations very favorable to him. There are a lot of members of Congress who are saying things favorable to him.

ALLYN: He does. He certainly does, you know, and while Trump has spent his presidency, you know, railing against social media, it is his favorite megaphone. It has propelled Trump's political rise. And it's, you know, been his main way of reaching his supporters. But now that Twitter is saying we have a bright red line and if you cross it, you will be kicked off the platform, that is a major change.

INSKEEP: OK.

NPR's Bobby Allyn on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.