As people nationwide watched the pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, debates have sparked over the president’s use of social media that played a role in the riot.
Following the riot, several social media platforms banned President Donald Trump from their sites to prevent him from spreading misinformation. However, some Cal Poly community members continue to question what freedom of speech means online.
In a press release by Twitter — the platform where the president had nearly 90 million followers — CEO Jack Dorsey blamed Donald Trump’s tweets for invoking violence and spreading misinformation.
“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the press release read.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had a similar announcement, citing the president’s online rhetoric as dangerous to the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden.
“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” the press release read. “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 decisions by major social media platforms started a domino effect of other actions, from suspending QAnon accounts connected to the riots to mobile app stores banning the popular conservative social network app Parler from their marketplaces.
In a Mustang News poll, over 80% of participants agreed with the decision to ban Trump from social media.
When the ban took place, business administration junior Ashley Rios, an avid Twitter user, said she felt conflicted about the timing of the decision.
“For the first five seconds I was happy about it, but when I thought about it deeper, I was angry it took this long,” Rios said.
Rios, who describes herself as “very pro-free speech” also said she believes that there are limits to online discourse and that the president’s consistently inflammatory rhetoric online exceeded those limits.
“Free speech is important to our society, but [Trump] took it too far by inciting violence and spouting racism,” Rios said. “We need to stop giving horrible people a platform. It allows others to get radicalized when leaders say the dumbest things. It’s dangerous.”
“We need to stop giving horrible people a platform. It allows others to get radicalized when leaders say the dumbest things. It’s dangerous.”
Communication studies junior and Co-President of Cal Poly Democrats Lauren Buckley said she agreed that removing Trump from social media was the right decision.
Buckley said she still believes the president can find a way around the bans.
“It does take away a lot of power away from him, we’ll see a lot less fiery outbursts, but he still has the press as a way to get his message out,” Buckley said.
Not everyone agrees with the decision by tech CEOs, as some believe this was an action in violation of the president’s freedom of speech.
Taxation graduate student and Cal Poly College Republicans Club board member Jackson Ratkovich said he is wary of these decisions by social media companies and is worried about the precedent it sets.
“I think it’s terrifying that these corporations have this sort of control over anything,” Ratkovich said. “Unless you are a Stalinist communist or a complete fascist you should be afraid of what’s happening.”
Ratkovich said that this action is not only a concern for conservatives, as it was also condemned by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU’s statement by Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane said that the bans should be of concern for the activists from marginalized groups incapable of the same press resources as the president, and they said that these groups could continue being censored online.
“Free speech is the foundation of democracy and it needs to be completely sustained on the platforms,” Ratkovich said.
Ratkovich said he believes both sides of the political spectrum are to blame for what has happened but with different motivations.
“The left is surrendering their principles [of corporate regulation] to get this gotcha moment that everyone is looking for in modern politics. It’s deplorable,” Ratkovich said. “On the right, those who say this is alright because [tech companies] are private corporations I think are too dug-into the ‘small government’ principle to do anything about it.”
Political science professor Ron Den Otter said that these suspensions do not raise any legal or constitutional questions, as Twitter is a private company and is therefore not subject to the First Amendment the same way the federal government is.
However, Den Otter said he is concerned about where to draw the line for limits of speech on social media.
“If a social media company can ban someone for, say, spreading lies or baseless conspiracy theories, can they ban people for expressing unpopular views as well?” Den Otter asked.
Den Otter added that what “totally free speech” should look like is still an area of debate.
“The very idea of the marketplace of ideas assumes that eventually, more often than not, the truth will prevail, but these days, that’s pretty clearly not the case,” Den Otter said.
While Den Otter said he believes the decision should have come from social media companies sooner, he said that their real motivations are based on their profits.
“I doubt that most social media companies will censor most speech, even if it would be justified to do so, because they’re trying to make a profit through advertising, and that means reaching as many people as possible,” Den Otter said. “The issue, then, really is what social media companies should be doing, and what damage they may be doing to democracy by enabling people to spread lies so easily.”
“The issue, then, really is what social media companies should be doing, and what damage they may be doing to democracy by enabling people to spread lies so easily.”
Looking ahead, Buckley said she believes that Trump’s suspension will pave the way for Twitter to ban other legislators who spread misinformation or incite violence on their online platforms.
On the other hand, Ratkovich said he believes the social media ban put the country in dangerous territory.
“[This ban is] one of the scariest things I’ve seen in this country and it’s even scarier to see people celebrate it,” Ratkovich said. “We are moving somewhere scary.”
To Rios, she said she is not sure what might happen going forward, but she thinks companies need to realize the negative impacts of hate speech.
“It’s hard to tell what sort of precedent this will set,” Rios said. “A line needs to be drawn on what is OK online.”