January 9, 2021

Is Twitter Partially Responsible for the Trump Insurrection?

Twitter

Twitter has policies governing those who use their service. If a user violates these policies, their account may be suspended or even banned. Although their enforcement of these policies is implemented in a haphazard and frequently inconsistent manner, there is at least one thing we can say with great confidence: they have not been applied to Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly violated Twitter's policies, tweeting things that would have resulted in almost anyone else being banned. Twitter has repeatedly responded to public pressure by claiming that they have allowed Trump to do what he does because his account is newsworthy and that they regard it as a public service of sorts. Now that Twitter has finally banned Trump's account, I can't help but wonder whether they deserve some of the blame for the recent Christian nationalist terrorism at the US. Capitol.

By giving Trump a pass to say whatever he wanted on their platform for the majority of his term, Twitter has been providing him with a platform to spread hatred, foment division, and even incite violence. It has been clear to many of us that this has had negative consequences. If Trump is now liable for doing this, how can Twitter not share some of the responsibility? If Trump is now at fault for what happened at the Capitol, doesn't Twitter deserve some portion of the blame?

In my opinion, Twitter's decision to allow Trump to violate their policies for so long amplifies their responsibility. They knew he was violating their policies and opted against enforcing them. That would seem to elevate their culpability. Had they treated him the same as the rest of us, he would have been banned long ago. When they chose not to do this, they went well beyond providing him with the same sort of platform they provide to the rest of their users. They gave him a much more powerful platform where he could engage in consequence-free speech, openly violating the same policies the rest of us were expected to follow. It seems like they should now be held liable for doing so.

The irony here isn't lost on me. Trump has been talking about wanting to strip social media companies of their liability-free status for some time. Had he been successful in doing so, Twitter would almost certainly be liable for the harm he's caused and that they've facilitated. And now it appears that Twitter will get a pass.