EXPLAINER: Can Social Media Companies Boot Trump? Yes

January 11, 2021by Kevin Freking, Associated Press
President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Social media companies decided this past week they had finally seen enough from President Donald Trump.

Facebook and Instagram suspended Trump at least until Inauguration Day. Twitch and Snapchat also disabled Trump’s accounts. To top it all off, Twitter ended a nearly 12-year run and shuttered his account, severing an instant line of communication to his 89 million followers.

Conservatives are crying foul.

“Free Speech Is Under Attack! Censorship is happening like NEVER before! Don’t let them silence us. Sign up at http://DONJR.COM to stay connected!” his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted Friday.

CAN TWITTER AND FACEBOOK LEGALLY TAKE SUCH ACTION?

The short answer is yes.

As the Congressional Research Service has explained in a report for federal lawmakers and their staffs, lawsuits predicated on a website’s decision to remove content largely fail. That’s because the free speech protections set out in the First Amendment generally apply only to when a person is harmed by an action of the government.

“The First Amendment doesn’t apply to private sector organizations. That’s not how this works,” said Chris Krebs, when asked Sunday whether censorship by social media companies violated freedom of speech protections.

Krebs oversaw election cybersecurity efforts at the Department of Homeland Security until Trump fired him when he disputed election fraud claims. Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, he explained that companies enforce their own standards and policies for users.

That’s what happened at Twitter on Friday.

WHAT RATIONALE DID TWITTER TAKE FOR ITS ACTIONS?

The company said after reviewing Trump’s account in the context of the riot at the Capitol on Wednesday, it was concerned about two tweets he sent Friday that Twitter said could incite violence. They were:

— “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”

— “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

The first tweet, the company said, was received by some supporters as further confirmation that the Nov. 3 election was not legitimate — but in fact, the notion of widespread voter fraud is a baseless claim. The use of the words “American Patriots” to describe some of his supporters was also interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the Capitol.

The company said the second tweet could serve as encouragement to those considering violent acts that the inauguration ceremonies on Jan. 20 would be a “safe” target since he would not be attending.

“Our determination is that the two Tweets above are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021, and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so,” Twitter wrote.

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