Watching the events unfold in Washington DC on January 6th, I was shocked yet not surprised. Images of Trump supporters scaling the Capitol building, breaking windows and occupying the House and Senate has shown just how polarised and toxic American politics has become. Trump’s time in office has seen democratic norms trampled over, dangerous conspiracy theories promoted, and the United States reduced to an embarrassment on the world stage.
As of writing, five people have died following the insurrection in Washington. With Trump for weeks proclaiming that the election has been rigged and stolen, is it any surprise that his followers decided to take matters into their own hands? In the eyes of his supporters, moderate Republicans were traitors and the mainstream media were not to be trusted. They only had each other.
Hours before Trump supporters swarmed the Capitol building, Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, egged on the mob at a rally, declaring: ‘Let’s have trial by combat’. This language is clearly inciting violence and dangerous. The Trump administration’s incendiary and hostile rhetoric over the past four years was the catalyst which caused this chaos. Liz Cheney, a prominent Republican, described the situation best when she said: ‘There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame’.
The events in Washington on Wednesday saw social media platforms finally take a stand against Trump, with Twitter permanently deleting his personal account which boasts over 88 million followers. The decision to ban Trump came after he tweeted that those that stormed the US Capitol were ‘American patriots’ and the MAGA movement ‘will not be disrespected or treated unfairly’. For Trump, who used his Twitter account essentially as his own personal megaphone, this decision by Twitter will hurt his ability to communicate with his base.
In a sense though, while many will see this as a moral victory, the banning of Trump’s account is long overdue. Twitter’s decision to suspend Trump after the violence has occurred reminds me of Trump’s apology after Charlottesville. It was good that he did it, but it was too little too late. Social media companies have essentially allowed Trump to spout his misleading claims for years, and have only decided to act now once people have been hurt. As Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center says: ‘This is the outcome of years of inaction…this is a major failure of those who built this technology and claimed they could secure it’.
Some have said that Twitter’s decision to ban Trump is an overreach, and point to it as yet another example of the liberal tech bosses in Silicon Valley trying to curtail freedom of speech. I wholeheartedly disagree. Twitter is a private company, and users agree to their terms of service when creating an account. If individuals break these rules, as Trump has repeatedly done, then they should face the consequences of their actions. I understand that social media platforms resemble the modern-day public square, with many different voices all being able to speak their mind and put forward their point of view on topical issues. However, whilst freedom of speech is important, the incitation of violence should be prohibited.
Many people though would like to see social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook resemble some sort of ‘Wild West’, with no rules and regulations in place at all. This is where I disagree. Social media is incredibly influential, and sadly is increasingly being used for malign purposes and to sour political debate. I could not shout false statements or incite violence against groups in the public park, so equally, why should I be able to do so on the internet? Civil discourse is healthy and is to be encouraged, but incitement is not protected speech.
I couldn’t possibly predict what the future will hold. Trump has already stated that he will be breaking with tradition by not attending Biden’s inauguration. Will he fade quietly into the background as past presidents have done, or will he remain politically active, promoting candidates that represent Trumpism and his style of politics? There have been rumours he will run again in 2024, or even may start his own media empire to challenge Fox News. At this point who knows what Trump is planning, but without his Twitter account to tell us about his plans, his next venture certainly will be unexpected.