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How Facebook and Twitter limited Trump’s reach after the insurrection on Capitol Hill

Both social media companies suspended Trump’s accounts. Facebook’s ban is indefinite.

President Trump stands in front of America flags and holds up a fist.
President Donald Trump spoke behind protective glass at the “Stop the Steal” Rally on January 6.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
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It looks like Trump is back on Twitter, after being suspended for a series of violating tweets following the insurrection Wednesday at the US Capitol. The president tweeted out a video in which he seems uncharacteristically level-headed in discussing the results of the election and the events at the Capitol. Meanwhile, Facebook has blocked his account from posting indefinitely. The future of Trump on social media remains unclear.

Social media companies are implementing some of the toughest measures yet to limit Trump’s reach in the aftermath of the violence in Washington. Twitter’s suspension was unprecedented: The company locked Trump’s account for 12 hours — a period that was set to begin after Trump went into his own account and took down the tweets that violate Twitter’s policies. On Thursday morning, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed that the violating tweets had been deleted from inside the president’s account, which has nearly 90 million followers on the platform, and Trump tweeted again that evening.

Twitter has also said it would suspend Trump’s account permanently if he violated the platform’s rules on civic integrity or violent threats again.

Facebook’s ban, which was initially supposed to last 24 hours, was also unprecedented. Before those 24 hours were up, though, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that Trump might never post on Facebook again.

“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

The move marks the most significant action Facebook has ever taken against Trump.

On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was indefinitely suspending Trump’s ability to post on the platform.

Beyond that, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have also used the tools they’ve employed in the past to handle sensitive events more proactively: adding labels, taking down posts that violate their rules, and elevating content from authoritative sources. Smaller platforms have also started taking action against Trump: Twitch, the video streaming platform owned by Amazon, disabled Trump’s account indefinitely, and at least until the inauguration. Snapchat also blocked the president from posting.

But with the insurrection that happened at the Capitol, it seems possible that, in the final days of the Trump presidency, the platforms still aren’t effectively clamping down on his misinformation or his attacks on US democracy. Before Twitter and Facebook suspended Trump’s ability to post, many prominent figures in tech and politics called on the companies to suspend Trump’s social media accounts altogether because of his continued incitement of violence.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook condemned the protests at the Capitol and said that “incitement and calls for violence” are banned on the site. Notably, Facebook was criticized vociferously after the platform left up a post from Trump that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” amid the 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Trump has an immense megaphone on Facebook, where he has more than 35 million followers. In the hours before the violence, one of the most-engaged posts on the platform, according to the Facebook-owned tool CrowdTangle, was one from Trump encouraging his supporters to come to Washington, DC, on Wednesday, stating that the city “is being inundated with people who don’t want to see an election stolen.” The post included a Facebook-supplied label directing people to a page about election integrity on the Bipartisan Policy Center website, which is similar to the labels that Facebook applied to several of Trump’s recent posts.

The election integrity label was also applied to a video uploaded to Trump’s Facebook page as the insurrection was still unfolding on Capitol Hill. In it, Trump urged calm, but he repeated his false claims of a stolen election. Facebook took the video down just a couple hours after it was uploaded, but not before it had been viewed more than 2.7 million times.

This video, in which President Donald Trump made false claims about the US election, was taken down by Facebook.

Ahead of its suspension, Twitter also ratcheted up its enforcement on Trump’s tweets. In a statement posted to its platform on Wednesday afternoon, Twitter said calls to violence are against its policies and that the company is reducing engagement on tweets that could increase the risk of violence.

Twitter also took the rare action of deleting two of Trump’s tweets, including one falsely claiming that the election was “viciously stripped away” from him and one encouraging the rioters. It’s unclear if these were the tweets that needed to be deleted from within Trump’s account for it to be restored.

Meanwhile, the video of Trump addressing rioters that Facebook removed was also posted to his Twitter account. On Wednesday evening, its engagement was restricted: users could not like, comment, retweet, or quote tweet the post. Twitter later deleted the post, but the video already been viewed nearly 13 million times. YouTube also took down the video of Trump addressing rioters, as well as several other videos that either promoted violence or included people carrying firearms.

“Our teams are working to quickly remove livestreams and other content that violates our policies, including those against incitement to violence or regarding footage of graphic violence,” Farshad Shadloo, a spokesperson for YouTube, told Recode, adding that the company is also amplifying authoritative sources on its homepage, in search results, and in recommendation letters.

On Parler, a small and largely unmoderated social media platform with a heavily conservative user base, there is significant discussion of the situation at the Capitol. The platform did not respond to Recode’s request for comment before publication.

Calls for platforms to do more

So far, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have refrained from permanently deleting Trump accounts or those of major groups that helped organize the protests, despite some of the platforms blocking his ability to post. Many people — including prominent members of the tech and civil liberties communities — are criticizing the companies for not going further in limiting violent rhetoric.

“Now is the time for Silicon Valley companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior — and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their platforms,” Former First Lady Michelle Obama said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has called on Twitter to suspend Trump from the platform for the rest of his presidency.

Chris Sacca, an early Twitter investor, wrote that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have blood on their hands for allowing people to “incite violent treason” on their platforms, and called on the leaders and their employees to “shut it down.”

Stanford Internet Observatory director and former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos called for Twitter and Facebook to cut off Trump’s account before both companies did just that.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have long argued that they have a responsibility to defend open communication on their platforms, even when it can be politically contentious. And in the rare cases where these companies have taken more extreme measures — such as when Twitter blocked a New York Post article containing disputed claims about Hunter Biden or Facebook’s removal of a Trump post containing false claims about Covid-19 and children — those actions have been met with sharp criticism from conservative politicians and some free-speech advocates.

But Wednesday’s events represent a serious test of whether incremental restrictions like a warning label go far enough, particularly in the scenario of a sitting president using social media to encourage a violent assault on US democracy.

And somehow, despite the fact that social media companies have had years to prepare for this moment, and plenty of warnings that Wednesday in particular could be a violent one, they still appeared indecisive and unprepared to handle the situation.

Update, January 8:05 pm ET: This story was updated to include further actions taken by social media companies as well as new comments from their critics.