For the past five years, there’s been a constant debate inside the halls of Twitter. It has taken place on the company’s online corporate channels and in-person in the halls of its San Francisco headquarters. It’s a debate that has driven some employees to want to leave the company, and others to become more recalcitrant in their beliefs about unmitigated free speech. A discussion that would come up among employees at after-hour drinks at the nearby beer halls on Market and Octavia Streets, or at the company’s “Tea Time,” an all-hands meeting where Tweeps (as they’re called) meet to hear about updates happening inside the company. The question: Should Donald Trump ever be censored, or even banned, from Twitter?
Jack Dorsey, the CEO and cofounder of Twitter, seemed to like a non-Trump policy. Deciding if the leader of the free world got to use your platform isn’t a decision most people want to make, let alone Dorsey, who enjoys holding court to philosophize about Bitcoin or talk about the esoteric details of wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy used by some bespoke fashion brands, rather than being mired in the day-to-day of his company. Some who worked at Twitter see free speech as the bedrock of our society, and showed little, if any, interest in restricting anyone’s language—no matter how abusive. The argument has been that, yes, you might have some harassing language on the platform, particularly targeting women and people of color (a major understatement, obviously), but the best of these independent and uncensored opinions would rise to the top, and allow a more diverse array of people to have a voice than they did pre-social media. There were little sayings that were passed around Twitter justifying why Trump was allowed to constantly lie, attack, ridicule, and inflame. “You don’t give someone a pencil, and then tell them what they can and cannot write with it,” one such missive was once relayed to me.
Last week, it seems Twitter decided to take its pencil back—or break it in half?—and Trump was finally, and indefinitely, suspended from the platform after months of outright lying, mostly on Twitter, about the election being stolen from him. (It wasn’t, he lost, by a lot.) According to two people with knowledge of the events around Trump’s banishment, Dorsey had been vacationing at the Brando, a luxury resort in French Polynesia where rooms can cost as much as $25,000 a night during the “festive season,” and it was his employees who had had enough—as The Washington Post reported, roughly 350 workers sent a letter to Dorsey demanding action. Given that Mark Zuckerberg had already suspended Trump from Facebook for inciting the riots, and other digital platforms were soon following suit, coupled with incoming calls from advisers telling Dorsey he had to do something, the decision was finally made to expel Trump.
What’s been clear to anyone who has followed his rhetoric over the years, is that Trump will say something that isn’t true (that he wants to be true) and then says it over and over and over until people actually believe it is—Trump included. We saw this with everything Trump said, from his obsession with the Obama “Birther movement,” to his lies that he owned a real Renoir (it was fake), and now, to his incessant and endless lies about voter fraud. The culmination of the latter has ignited a hotbed of homegrown violent extremism in the country, with hordes of people storming the Capitol last week, and more threatening to take back the government for Trump. This has left Democrats with little choice but to impeach Trump, again, with the hope of preventing him from egging on his most fervent pro-Trump-flag-waving-red-hat rioters to storm the Capitol again in the hopes of overturning the results of the election.
Since then, Trump has been almost completely evicted from the digital platforms that helped him become president. Reddit has banned the subreddit group “r/DonaldTrump,” his Twitch channel was suspended over the weekend, Snapchat disabled his account, and Shopify even took down two online stores affiliated with Trump. Soon after, tech leaders turned on Parler, the far-right social network that was largely used to organize the insurrection on the Capitol, which left five people dead, including one police officer. (One of the only platforms that hasn’t booted Trump, is likely one of the most overlooked in this chaos, but perhaps the worst offender in spreading his rhetoric and QAnon conspiracies: YouTube.)
These actions were quickly used to shift the blame over what took place last week in the direction of a new enemy, the leaders of tech companies. “Free Speech Is Under Attack! Censorship is happening like NEVER before! Don’t let them silence us,” Don Jr. lamented (on Twitter, of course). The far-right-pro-Q cleansing of the Internet, which included the purging of more than 70,000 Q-promoting Twitter accounts, and Facebook, Pinterest, and TikTok disallowing certain hashtags, like StopTheSteal, from being shared on their platforms, has now been compared to being the “most-efficient—and perhaps the largest—act akin to book-burning in history,” or to having people’s “tongues torn out.” Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro complained that the latest moves by big tech were “akin to a Kristallnacht.” Most of all, the banning of Trump and his conspiracy-wielding minions was called by Trump supporters an attack against the First Amendment.