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Today’s read: 13 minutes.
Trump gets banned from Twitter. Plus, a question about the shooting at the Capitol building.
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- The House of Representatives formally introduced articles of impeachment on Monday, charging President Trump with “incitement of an insurrection.”
- The FBI is continuing to make arrests related to the riot in the Capitol building. Dozens of people have already been arrested and charged for actions taken during the riots, and 13 have been charged by the Justice Department.
- President-elect Joe Biden will name William J. Burns, a former career diplomat who has served Democrats and Republicans, to lead the CIA.
- With just days left in his presidency, Trump is scheduled to tour the Texas border this week to draw attention to progress made on border security.
- Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she is “extremely concerned” about next week’s inauguration, describing “new threats of insurgent acts of domestic terrorists.”
What D.C. is talking about.
Donald Trump and Twitter. Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook both banned the President of the United States from their platforms. Twitter cited “the risk of further incitement of violence” and said it was banning Trump permanently, while Facebook said it was suspending his account through January 20th. Twitter cited two tweets in a post about its ban:
“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
And a follow up:
“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
The company said “these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behavior from this account in recent weeks.” It also noted that “the second Tweet may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”
It wasn’t just Twitter and Facebook, either: Apple and Amazon both cracked down, suspending the Twitter alternative Parler from their app stores and web hosting services (respectively), citing evidence that the platform was used to organize the riots at the Capitol building last Wednesday. Parler has long sold itself as a bastion of free speech, citing a relaxed moderation policy, and Apple says it won’t reinstate the website until it provides an update on how it will moderate its content.
Trump’s suspension from Twitter marks a remarkable moment in a presidency that has relied heavily on social media to bypass traditional communication methods for presidents. Trump has repeatedly made policy announcements, threatened adversaries, fired staff members or rattled the financial markets with tweets from his personal account. The @POTUS account, which will be inherited by the next president, is still active — but over the weekend Twitter deleted a post from the account featuring a statement from Trump calling Twitter the enemy of free speech. Twitter says it will not delete the account, but will limit its use, as using alternative accounts to evade suspensions violate its rules.
Facebook, too, has been critical to Trump’s success and connection with supporters. His ad campaigns on Facebook have been under scrutiny for years, as has his relationship with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and that he can no longer access either account is a stunning development in a space that he and his team dominated in a way no other politician had before.
Trump, who had 88 million followers on Twitter, is reportedly “apoplectic” about the ban and exploring new ways to connect with his supporters — perhaps by starting a social media company of his own. Today, we’ll explore some reactions to the ban from the right and left.
What the right is saying.
The right is extremely critical of the move, even those who have condemned Trump in the last week, calling it “Big Tech censorship” and warning that these companies have too much power to silence dissent.
“Can right-wing populist sentiment be banished from American life by the brute force of social-media censorship?” The Wall Street Journal editorial board asked. “We’re about to find out. After Wednesday’s mob invasion of the Capitol that disrupted the counting of electoral votes, big tech firms have moved, aggressively and in unison, against Donald Trump and his supporters. The companies say they want to marginalize the violent fringe, but their censorship will grow it instead.
“Sociologists have documented how America’s political tribes increasingly shop at different stores, live in different places and have different tastes,” the board added. “That cultural gap contributed to Donald Trump’s rise, and political segregation of the internet will widen it… Dissenting opinion won’t vanish because tech CEOs ban it. The views will go underground, perhaps become radicalized in frustration, and eventually burst into the open in the streets. Perceived political abuses by tech firms are becoming a major engine of populism in the 21st century, and the companies’ moves on Parler will supply an infusion of fuel.”
The New York Post editorial board called Big Tech a “cartel” that needs to be regulated.
“Parler, the alternative social-media site that aims to be ‘the world’s premier free speech platform,’ surged to No. 1 on Apple’s app store Friday as Twitter was banning President Trump indefinitely,” The Post wrote. “On Saturday, Apple and Google banned the site, stopping new users from downloading the app — while Amazon began cutting Parler off from its Web-hosting service, forcing it to find a new host or shut down… As we’ve noted before, endless bile roams free on Twitter — hate speech and worse that the company polices in no consistent way. Yet now other tech companies are punishing Parler for failing in the same way. They’re not applying a neutral rule, they’re catering to the biases of their angry left-leaning employees.”
Rod Dreher said he felt vindicated after witnessing the “coordinated” move against Trump and his allies by Big Tech.
“I have been very clear in this space that what the MAGA mob did in Washington was absolutely unacceptable, and that everyone who participated in it should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he wrote. “That said, it is instructive to compare, as Culper does, the reaction of the Establishment (my catch-all term for figures in the state, corporate America, universities, media, and other institutions that make up what the neoreactionaries call ‘the Cathedral’) to last year’s race rioting and Wednesday’s MAGA riot. It was entirely predictable. Last year’s rioters were widely characterized in the media and among the Establishment as victims, ultimately. Nobody sees the MAGA people as victims, only as Deplorables. In my view, rioters, whether white or black, left-wing or right-wing, are deplorable. Violence must be rejected, full stop…
“I’ve been saying for a while in this space that the American version of the social credit system is going to come about to allow the Establishment to control political dissent, and that it would be implemented with the excuse that it is required to keep the civil peace. What happened Wednesday is exactly the excuse they need.”
What the left is saying.
The left has generally supported the suspension, saying Trump and his allies brought it upon themselves with nonstop violations of social media guidelines and incitement.
In The Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik said Twitter’s action, “coming as it did at the very tail end of Trump’s presidency during which Twitter granted him a unique level of indulgence, is sure to provoke a broad debate over the power of private social media firms to act as arbiters of public discourse.
“Some users, especially conservatives, have decried moderation, suspensions or bans of their content by Twitter, Facebook and other platforms as ‘censorship.’ That notion promptly started making its way among Trump supporters after Twitter’s announcement,” he added. “At the most fundamental level, Twitter and Facebook don’t have the power to ‘silence’ Trump. He still has plenty of opportunity to reach out to a vast audience: he could give speeches, host press conferences, email statements, post messages on his website or schedule TV spots via indulgent platforms such as Fox News. As president, he has had more access to the public than anyone else in the world, since his every word is widely disseminated as news.
Hiltzik also argued that “despite his violations of Twitter standards in ways that prompted suspensions and bans of many an ordinary user, his tweets were ‘newsworthy and of public interest’ and therefore he was exempt from those standards… The social media platforms have struggled with how far to go to rein in political speech, which should be protected. That wasn’t the issue here. Trump went far beyond political speech by inciting a riot, and they were right in sending him packing.”
Fred Hiatt argued that Twitter actually waited too long to take action.
“Twitter is a private company, and it has no obligation to distribute Trump’s lies or provocations. If anything, Twitter, like Facebook and YouTube, allowed his lies about a stolen election to circulate too widely and for too long. Only after those lies led to unspeakable, deadly, democracy-threatening violence did Twitter take definitive action…
“And Twitter’s action in no way impedes Trump’s right to speak, as he quickly proved by issuing his statement of complaint, which was widely reported on, in The Post and elsewhere. The real threat to the First Amendment in recent years has emanated from Trump toward Twitter, not the other way around, when he initiated government action against the company for posting warnings that displeased him.”
In Vox, Cameron Peters argued that the decision to remove Parler from the Apple App store and off of Amazon Web Services was wise.
“Some Parler users did themselves no favors in their response to news of Amazon’s decision Saturday, instead highlighting the reason Amazon acted in the first place,” Peters wrote. “‘It would be a pity if someone with explosives training were to pay a visit to some AWS Data Centers - the location of which are public knowledge,’ Parler user @ronglaister wrote Saturday… It’s posts of that sort that underscore the central problem with Parler — and likely what pushed major tech companies to act this week.”
“Though Parler brands itself as a ‘free speech’ platform, its status as a Twitter alternative means that it has ended up attracting a particular kind of speech since its genesis in 2018. Specifically, the kind of speech that would get the average user banned from Twitter — disinformation, white supremacism, anti-Semitism, and outright calls for violence,” Peters noted. “Not only was violence planned and incited on the site before extremists stormed the Capitol Wednesday and killed a Capitol Police officer, but further planning was ongoing ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.”
First, I don’t believe this is a “free speech” issue, as many on the right want to frame it. U.S. legal tradition rightfully prevents hurtful speech from being regulated or punished by the government — not by private companies. It’s been said, but bears repeating, that these are all private entities with content policies and have a right to dictate what and who is allowed on their platforms. It’s also ironic beyond words that Trump and his allies continue to call for Section 230 reformation that would almost certainly make sweeping actions like this more common, not less so, as Section 230 helps protect these companies from being held responsible for things like the riots in D.C. on Wednesday.
Second, it’s also true that it did not appear tenable to keep Trump on Twitter. The public pressure was overwhelming. To the previous point, these are private companies — companies that rely on shareholders, users, and public support to succeed. Twitter became a pariah immediately after the riots, even facing an uprising from its own employees, and the president’s actions — and those of his supporters — effectively pigeonholed them into a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. The outcry if they had taken no action could have conceivably been worse than what they’re facing now.
Yet none of this makes me any more comfortable.
It should be said unequivocally and for the record that Twitter, Facebook, the Apple App Store and Amazon Web Services are applying their standards unevenly and with bias. Most obviously, the very tweets Twitter cited as proof of Trump’s incitement require serious mental gymnastics and a series of assumptions in order to be regarded as violations of their terms of service — i.e., Trump announcing that he is not going to the inauguration, a newsworthy question millions of Twitter users themselves have been asking for weeks, suddenly becomes a coded signal that it’s okay to bomb the inauguration because he won’t be there?
If we’re to take Twitter’s justification literally, consider this comparison: Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei can call for the literal genocide of Jews with no repercussions, but Trump is banned permanently for announcing he is not attending the inauguration. It’s absurd on its face. And Khamenei is not alone, by the way: actual dictators, despots and terrorists use Twitter to intimidate and threaten their opposition all the time. Look at how Alexey Navalny, the Russian dissident who was literally poisoned by Vladimir Putin, reacted to the news.
“In my opinion, the decision to ban Trump was based on emotions and personal political preferences,” he said. “Don't tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn't ban anyone (not that I ask for it). Among the people who have Twitter accounts are cold-blooded murderers (Putin or [Nicolás] Maduro) and liars and thieves ([Dmitry Anatolyevich] Medvedev). For many years, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been used as a base for Putin's ‘troll factory’ and similar groups from other authoritarian countries… Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russia and China of such private companies becoming the state's best friends and the enablers when it comes to censorship.”
It’s also not often true that de-platforming works, as many on the left contend. The example they cite most is Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart writer who was one of the first far-right provocateurs removed from Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms — then saw his career evaporate. But Yiannopoulos is the exception, not the rule.
What typically happens when people are de-platformed is not that their influence or power is diminished, but that they are martyred in the eyes of their supporters — entering another plane of importance now that they have been directly targeted by “the establishment” or “Big Tech.” Indeed, such a sweeping move does not delegitimize or destroy them so much as it empowers them by affirming their position — and the belief of their ardent supporters — that they are so important as to need to be targeted.
A better example of this than Yiannopoulos is Alex Jones, a right-wing troll and overt conspiracy theorist who endangered the parents of the victims in the Sandy Hook shooting by sharing photos and satellite images of their homes while encouraging his followers to harass and investigate them, as if losing their elementary school-aged children in a mass shooting wasn’t bad enough. Jones is a despicable and disgusting human being, who has admitted under oath his entire existence is a sham, and he deserved to be banished.
But the outcome of that ban could easily be described as disastrous. It drew headlines for weeks, it was celebrated by his supporters as proof of his power, and it sequestered his followers to his website and other independent channels where his nonsense faces no dissent or opposition. His popularity hasn’t actually been hampered, it’s just that he’s now out of view of the people who despise him.
And where was Jones on Wednesday, January 6th? He was in Washington D.C., standing atop a car with a megaphone, helping incite thousands of people to storm the Capitol and take back their country. Again: he was not diminished, he was just hidden from those who hate him, and he reappeared in the public view with more fervent, dangerous and loyal supporters than when he was banished.
Parler deserves little sympathy, either. I wrote one of the first profiles of Parler two years ago, before it was a household name, and about my experience as a Jew creating an account and immediately being confronted with antisemitism and racism. I interviewed the Parler CEO twice, a man who genuinely seems like a decent and thoughtful person, about what an abhorrent platform he had created — one he stands by in the name of free public discourse.
Again: Parler has done a terrible job moderating its users, and it has paid the predictable price of being banned from the hosts it needs to run. But what about Gab? Or any of the other detestable and far-worse message boards that haven’t been banned? And what happens when Parler rebuilds its website on a new hosting service and returns to the public space in a few weeks? Do you suppose it will be more or less popular when Donald Trump invariably begins using his account?
I truly don’t know what the answer is. I don’t. I do believe Trump and Parler left these companies with little choice. But I just can’t shake the feeling that this all feels off, that it’s all going to make things worse, and that it’s absurd to see the President of the United States banned while actual dictators remain on Twitter. I worry that de-platforming will only worsen the radicalization once we’ve martyred those who deserve to be mocked, and that we’ve only put these things in a box under the bed but haven’t actually thrown them out.
Your questions, answered.
Q: I would love to hear your thoughts on the difference in coverage and reaction to Ashley Babbitt (who was unarmed) being shot point-blank, and say, Jacob Blake, who was armed. I don’t want to make any assumptions, but it seems the only real difference is the color of their skin.
— Anonymous, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tangle: On my own, I honestly don’t think it’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the two, given the nature and additional context of these events. That being said, I’ve seen enough chatter trying to equate them that I want to use some space in this newsletter to respond.
Most obviously, the officer who shot Babbitt was cornered, facing a crowd of hundreds if not thousands of people (if you count those outside) that posed a clear and obviously insurmountable threat. We now know many of them were armed. The walls and security of the Capitol building had been breached, and this officer was charged with the increasingly difficult job of protecting members of Congress still in the room from a mob.
Two, while Blake has admitted to being in possession of a knife, I think most observers found his shooting so detestable because he appeared to be leaving the scene. Two important things about that: One, there were children in the vehicle, and police involved in Blake’s shooting rightly expressed concern for their safety. Two, this was after a struggle with police in which they failed to subdue him with a taser. Still, the argument that he posed the same or even a similar threat as a mob violently moving toward the officers in the Capitol building is disingenuous at best.
Three, the additional context of how these officers are supposed to act in these situations is worth examination. One of the critical elements of the Blake shooting is whether the officers were properly trained to de-escalate the situation or if they even tried to. Or, even worse, if their presence or actions actually made the situation deteriorate. In the case of the Capitol riots, the situation was clearly beyond the point of de-escalation, and the actions of the officers involved did not worsen the situation. It was a full-scale siege and it is unclear that there were any non-deadly use of force options available to stop the mob from advancing.
That’s not at all to say the Babbitt shooting was justified. On the contrary, I’m unsure of where I land on that. Is her life worth eliminating the prospective danger to members of Congress? In the officer’s eyes it clearly was. I wouldn’t make that argument without more thought. Did shooting her actually de-escalate the situation? Were there other options on the table besides deadly force in that moment? What was the rationale for pulling the trigger? What’s the history of the officer who made the shot? What were the orders from the people leading the Capitol police force? None of these answers is clear to me yet, and I think her shooting — as with any situation where a law enforcement officer uses deadly force — needs to be investigated and examined.
Again, my positions on police use of force and police accountability are decidedly left; I do believe there is overwhelming evidence for racial biases in our policing, and even when you take race out of it I believe our police have too much power and too little accountability for bad behavior. But my position is not that I want more people in jail or more people treated poorly by law enforcement. It’s the opposite. So my hope is Babbitt’s shooting, like it is for any other, is examined critically and with empathy — and I do hope the event is investigated and examined.
A story that matters.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) expressed skepticism at sending another round of stimulus checks to Americans as a way to help the nation rebound from the economic impacts of coronavirus. Manchin, a moderate Democrat holding the keys to a 50-vote threshold in the Senate, is now one of the most powerful legislators in the country. That means all eyes are on him for how the nation will continue to respond. “Sending checks to people that basically already have a check and aren't going to be able [to] spend that or are not going to spend it, usually are putting it in their savings account right now, that's not who we are. We have done an awful lot of that, it's time now to target where the money goes,” he said on CNN. Instead, Manchin suggested that if we’re going to spend another $2 trillion dollars, we should invest the money in something that creates jobs, like a nationwide infrastructure project.
- 9. The number of days until Joe Biden is inaugurated.
- 54 and 38. The percentage of Republicans who said they identified with Trump (54) or the Republican party (38), according to an October NBC News poll.
- 6.7 million. The number of Americans who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
- 22.2 million. The number of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that have been distributed to states.
- 13. The number of tie breaking votes Mike Pence cast in the Senate as vice president, the most ever in the modern era.
- 87. The age of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the oldest sitting senator.
- 33. The age of Senator-elect Jon Ossoff (D-GA), the soon-to-be youngest sitting senator.
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Iran’s government has finally approved a bill to protect women from gender-based violence after activists spent more than 16 years campaigning to make it law. The bill still needs to be approved by the parliament and then sent to a constitutional vetting body, but it’s a major step forward in the fight for women’s rights in Iran. The bill defines violence as “any behavior inflicted on women due to sexuality, vulnerable position or type of relationship, and inflicts harm to their body, psyche, personality and dignity, or restricts or deprives them of legal rights and freedoms,” according to Al-Jazeera.