Why it took an assault on the Capitol for social media giants to wield their power and what it means for social media going forward

Human Crowd Forming An Arrow Shape:  Social Media Concept

By Kelly Fallon

January 6, 2021 was a very dark day in American history and will certainly be recorded that way in the history books. The assault on the Capitol by an angry mob of Trump supporters left much of the country, and even the world, reeling as to how a targeted riot could so easily desecrate the Capitol building, along with everything it stands for. Since that day, many have shared opinions on who and what is to blame, and a common point of discussion has been the role social media played.

Social media’s struggle between honoring the First Amendment and fighting the spread of dangerous disinformation have been at odds for many years now. And when Donald Trump took office as our 45th president, the contention between the two concepts really came into the spotlight. Over the last four years, big tech has come under major scrutiny to hold Trump accountable for his actions on social media, but never has it resulted in the level of regulation we all bore witness to a couple weeks ago. For the first time, both Facebook and Twitter removed President Trump from its platforms; Facebook banned the President at least through the end of his term and shortly after, Twitter announced permanent suspension of Trump’s account. So why did it take a deadly insurrection on the Capitol to get to this point?

The short answer is that Facebook and Twitter say they removed Trump from their platforms “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” But, for many, the timing of the decision to finally pull the plug on Trump, is not insignificant. For four years, social media heavy hitters have maintained a balancing act – working to satisfy the demands of stakeholders, while avoiding total wrath from the most powerful person in the country. Now, as Trump’s presidency ends, and with a new administration to pander to, Facebook and Twitter are happy to silence Trump. Coincidence? Probably not.

While much of the world is relieved to see that Facebook and Twitter finally stepped up and used their power to obstruct someone who so irresponsibly used the platforms to influence millions of people, there is concern over the possible precedent it sets. Will social media companies now have the absolute power to remove anyone from their platforms, at will and unchecked? If the role social media has in giving people a platform to participate in public discourse wasn’t so significant, the concern wouldn’t be so great. But often, social media serves as the only accessible platform, and if it becomes inaccessible, that threatens the free speech of billions of people.

Still, social media platforms have terms of service that all users are required to agree to, so in that sense, they maintain the right to remove users who violate their rules. The key is applying those rules fairly. Unlike traditional media, social platforms are not held to the same standards regarding accuracy, accountability and balance, among others. But as more and more people utilize social media as a news source, the line becomes increasingly blurred. What’s become clear is that it’s time for social media companies to step up and lead with transparency.

As noted in last week’s blog post, the events of January 6th have changed the game for everyone. Greater consideration and accountability for our actions is a requirement, not an option – and standing for something has never been more important. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter face the same imperatives, and will navigate them under the microscope of the public eye.