Twitter has permanently suspended the account of Donald Trump, citing his repeated violations of the company’s rules and risks including the “further incitement of violence”.
Twitter assessed two tweets sent by Trump on Friday morning as “highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021”, the company said in a statement. Plans for “future armed protests” are spreading on Twitter and elsewhere, the company warned, “including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021”.
Twitter’s extraordinary decision to ban Trump’s personal account carries pointed symbolism for the embattled president, whose use of social media to stoke hatred and fear fueled both his unlikely political rise and his presidency’s ignominious end.
It comes two days after a mob of Trump supporters violently stormed the US Capitol, wreaking havoc in an attack that has resulted in five deaths. Even as the rampage continued, Trump tweeted in praise of the rioters, prompting Twitter to temporarily suspend his account, with a warning that any further infractions would lead to a permanent ban.
On Thursday, Facebook banned Trump from posting on its platforms at least through Joe Biden’s inauguration, citing the risk of inciting violence, a move that increased pressure on Twitter to finally unplug the erratic president’s bullhorn. Other social media companies have scurried to de-platform Trump and his most violent supporters; Google removed the rightwing social network Parler from its app store, citing the platform’s role in inciting violence. Among those calling for Trump’s suspension were 350 of Twitter’s own employees, the Washington Post reported.
“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action,” Twitter said in its statement. “Our determination is that the two Tweets … 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’s decision was hailed by Trump’s critics and lambasted by his remaining supporters. Many civil rights advocates, who have long argued that platforms should cease allowing Trump to use their platforms to spread bigotry, seized the opportunity to call on Facebook and YouTube to follow suit.
On Friday evening, Trump used multiple other Twitter accounts, including the official presidential account @POTUS and his campaign account @TeamTrump, in an attempt to tweet his complaints about the ban, but the tweets were quickly taken down. A Twitter spokesperson said that Trump was not allowed to use other accounts to evade his ban and that the company would continue to remove his tweets. The campaign account @TeamTrump was permanently banned from Twitter; Twitter said it would not suspend government accounts such as @POTUS or @WhiteHouse but might limit their use.
“This is the outcome of years of inaction,” said Joan Donovan, an expert in misinformation and research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “Tech companies have assumed for far too long that their products are neutral. But political elites and the millionaires behind them, knew this assumption could be weaponized. This is a major failure of those who built this technology and claimed they could secure it.”
The role of QAnon and conspiracy theories
In a statement that provided unprecedented detail about Twitter’s decision-making process, Twitter made it apparent that Trump’s months-long campaign of using Twitter to promote and amplify baseless conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of the presidential election had led directly to his suspension.
Trump’s two final tweets read: “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!!!” and “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
While those statements may appear relatively innocuous in comparison to some of Trump’s recent, heightened rhetoric, Twitter said that the president’s most avid and conspiracy-minded followers were not reading them as such during a particularly dangerous time.
The decision not to attend the inauguration is “being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate” and may “serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending,” Twitter said. Additionally, Trump’s references to his supporters as “American patriots” who must “not be disrespected or treated unfairly” was being interpreted as an endorsement of the rioters and support of those who continue to reject the orderly transition of power.
Trump is by no means alone in bearing responsibility for the dangerous proliferation of disinformation on Twitter. Though the platform carried out a broad crackdown of accounts and content related to the QAnon conspiracy in July, it has allowed a host of QAnon influencers to build massive audiences spreading baseless conspiracies about the election and supposed voter fraud since November.
Figures such as the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump attorney Sidney Powell, the 8Chan administrator Ron Watkins, and attorney Lin Wood have spent weeks stoking the flames of QAnon-inflected election conspiracies on Twitter, with their false allegations reaching both masses of Trump supporters and Trump himself.
On Friday, Twitter permanently suspended the accounts of Flynn, Powell and Watkins for violating its policy against “coordinated harmful activity”. Wood was suspended on Thursday.
“We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm, and given the renewed potential for violence surrounding this type of behavior in the coming days, we will permanently suspend accounts that are solely dedicated to sharing QAnon content,” a company spokesperson said.