President Donald Trump has used social platforms for the entirety of his presidency to spread misinformation and lies, to circumvent newspapers and other traditional news media that sought to hold him accountable for his claims, and to promote hatred and fan the flames of racial divisiveness. Social media companies including Twitter, where the president once reached 88.7 million followers, let him lie with impunity for the most part — and his followers and family members claimed it was his right based on incorrect interpretations of the First Amendment. The rights conveyed therein prohibit censorship by the government, not private businesses, and they do not apply to dangerous and false claims — particularly those made as throngs of your supporters prepare for insurrection.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote 101 years ago: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘Fire’ in a theatre and causing a panic … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”
Now, after a mob of ruffians, at the direction of our president, descended on the Capitol last week, thumbing their noses at our country’s democracy, and in the process proving how vulnerable we are to attack, Twitter and other companies finally recognized the “clear and present danger” and decided to do the right thing and shut down Mr. Trump’s accounts.
It took an attempted coup that left our lawmakers huddling underground in fear, and the loss of several lives — including the brutal beating of a Capitol police officer who was himself a Trump supporter — to muzzle the president’s hate speech. The companies all said it was because he incited violence with his rhetoric and feared he would continue to do so; already his supporters are reportedly planning another attack aimed at the presidential inauguration later this month.
Unfortunately, the actions of these companies came too late, and they should be held accountable, alongside the many Republican lawmakers and others who enabled the president’s call to violence. President Trump has shown us who he is time and again, using Twitter in particular to spread his views and rile up his supporters with propaganda, including false election claims that fueled the attack on the Capitol. But these companies put profits and followers before the safety of the country.
To make matters worse, the attack was planned and orchestrated in detail on social media, with talk about rushing the building and using zip ties to make citizen arrests of lawmakers, as the mob attempted to stop the Electoral Vote of President-elect Joe Biden. The posts raised obvious questions about why law enforcement wasn’t better prepared and what responsibility social media companies have to not act as hosts to criminal activity. They used their executive powers to institute a ban when the fire got too hot, but it is something they could and should have done a long time ago. They cannot exist as silent third parties with no culpability.
The social media companies have proven they can’t, or are not interested, in doing enough to effectively police their content, so it’s time regulators help them do it. (It is only recently that Twitter has begun to put disclaimers on some of Mr. Trump’s Tweets, but that was far from enough.) Mr. Trump may be silenced, but the spread of white supremacy, hatred and violence on social media is not. It’s time lawmakers take another look at Section 230, a law under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that protects online companies from legal responsibility for what others write or post on their platforms. The companies have been allowed to hide behind the law to allow for the spread of disinformation, in effect creating a Wild, Wild West platform of almost anything goes, with no way of weeding out what is truth. While they’re at it, lawmakers, in the name of integrity and ethics, should also look at how government officials use their social media platforms. Why was President Trump protected for so long?
Twitter and other platforms have the potential to promote a healthy political dialogue, but have instead turned into places of divisiveness. The events at the Capitol were a disgrace. Social media companies must be held accountable for their roles in promoting the deadly melee, and their practices at the center of a discussion on how to prevent such attacks in the future.
This piece is written by The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board. Editorials are the opinion of the Board, which is separate from the newsroom. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor, please send it to email@example.com.