We now have evidence that the biggest threat to American democracy was not the violent rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, but the bad-faith Republicans who work at the Capitol and spent two months fueling the Big Lie that the election was stolen in the first place. We also have evidence that ex-president Donald Trump could never have threatened democratic self-government without the help of social media companies. And we now have a case study on what happens to insurrectionists when private companies refuse to let them use those platforms to recruit, organize, and incite violence.
The cowards melt away. Deplatforming works. Delegitimizing people like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Trump works. Inauguration Day proved that.
My fears of violence at the inauguration of President Joe Biden did not come to pass—thankfully. The day went off without a hitch. Covid-19 made this inauguration look different from all the recent ones, not white supremacists in red hats. Joe Biden still got to fist-bump Al Roker. Katy Perry got to sing “Firework“ to fireworks. It was a beautiful day.
It’s fair to say that putting 25,000 troops on the ground and locking down Washington, D.C., for a week probably played a bigger role in securing the inauguration than temporarily suspending Majorie Taylor Greene from Twitter. And one can only hope that militarizing the ceremonial functions of government does not become a “new normal” we all have to endure.
But there was no analogous show of might at state capitols, which the Capitol insurrectionists and other extremist groups had also threatened to attack. While state governments beefed up security ahead of the inauguration, they didn’t go with the full military burlesque. However, on the day of reckoning, after the months of threats and maskless protests and plots to harm elected officials, nobody showed up to the rumble. There was no “storm.” There was no “Kraken.” There was no West Side Story—just “The Sound of Silence.”
Well, I shouldn’t say “nobody.” One person showed up in Albany, N.Y., to protest the election. A handful showed up in Sacramento, Calif., to do the same. One guy showed up in Vermont… to protest the injustice of the automated customer service provided by AT&T. I tried to document the “protests” at state capitals around the country on Inauguration Day, because it turns out “lone Trump supporter” is actually my favorite phrase in the English language right now.
What changed between January 6, when these people gathered in significant numbers to invade the Capitol, and January 20, when these people couldn’t maintain the intensity of John Cusak in Say Anything?
There are a lot of factors, but I would argue that the biggest one is that the social media companies took away their toys. One protester at the Texas state capitol in Austin even said so. Kaley Johnson, a reporter at the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, cited a man who said he “expected more people to be here, but was banned from Facebook so didn’t know if anything was planned.”
This is a truth that the social media companies have been denying all along in their attempts to justify making money off the forces that threaten democracy. Twitter and especially Facebook act like they are neutral platforms that are not responsible for the recruitment and aggregation of violent extremists. But we’ve seen report after report from experts in radicalization who have exposed how social media platforms are tools that are used to coordinate violence.
January 20 is what happens when these platforms take even minimal steps to block violent extremists from their services. After the Capitol siege, Facebook finally decided to ban QAnon accounts. It didn’t even ban that many accounts: Reports suggest it restricted around 2,000 Facebook groups and around 10,000 Instagram accounts, barely a dent in its overall user base. Yet, scarcely two weeks after removing some of the most obvious bad users, the “violent insurrectionists” are already reduced to a couple of randos milling around state capitols with arts-and-crafts projects, wondering where the party went.
Facebook and Twitter also removed the most notorious bad user: Trump. The last 10 days have been blissfully void of his inane complaints about the election and terrifying love notes to white supremacists.
And look what’s happened. The New York Times reports that the Proud Boys, who pledged themselves to “Emperor Trump” not three months ago, are now calling him a “total failure.” Removing Trump from his Twitter account for only two weeks has already helped to cause a rift between the militant forces of white supremacy and the head of the Republican Party.
I will always believe that if Twitter had banned Trump’s account the moment he started lying about the results of the election, five people would not have died in a riot at the Capitol. I will also believe that if Twitter had banned Trump’s account the moment he started lying about the coronavirus, hundreds of thousands of people might have been saved from this disease. And I will always believe that if Twitter had banned Trump’s account the moment he started lying about Barack Obama’s nation of birth, he would never have been president in the first place.
That tells us a lot more about Twitter and the social media universe that distorts reality than it does about Trump. After all, it’s not like the man was “silenced.” It’s not like he, or anybody else who had their accounts blocked in the wake of January 6, were stripped of their First Amendment rights. Indeed, to me, the most beautiful thing about these state capitol protests around the inauguration was not the schadenfreude but how those protests proved that the First Amendment is alive and well, and people who exercise their rights pose no real threat to free elections or democratic self-government.
One guy showed up at the state capitol in Idaho holding up a sign that read, “Legalize Arson.” He was not, to my knowledge, arrested or harmed by the government. In Georgia, two people were spied holding a sign that said, “I Hate My Government.” No constitutional crisis ensued. A guy in North Carolina had a sign calling the new president an “imposter.” Another man, in Washington, brandished a sign calling him a “traitor.” No Tomahawk missiles were sent to their locations.
That’s the First Amendment in action, folks, and it’s a beautiful thing. It is wonderful to live in a country where you can walk up to the seat of the government, scream “I hate you” for a few hours, and return home, safely, in time for supper. The people who object to the state have every right to voice their objections. The right to peaceably assemble must not be abridged by the government.
But what we’re not going to do is collapse the difference between the government’s criminalizing political speech (which it cannot do) and private companies’ banning violent extremists from their services (which they should have done already). What we’re not going to do is require private companies to give a platform to Republican elected officials so those officials can give aid, comfort, and legitimacy to those violent extremists. What we’re certainly not going to do is let people who are literally talking into a cable news microphone whine about being “silenced.” The First Amendment was not created so Republicans with presidential ambitions could play footsie with extremists while maintaining plausible deniability. If Republicans want to freely associate with these people, go, associate, and let everybody know what you’re doing. Nobody will stop you. Just don’t come crying to Twitter because it’s harder to slide into its DMs.
What stopped the Proud Boys, banned from social media, from showing up in-person at state capitols? What stopped the Congressional Seditionist Caucus from protesting alongside their people on Inauguration Day, instead of participating in the ceremony inaugurating a new president they’ve spent two months claiming is illegitimate? What stopped Trump from holding a press conference, in the room in his old house that was designed for such a thing, after he was banned from Twitter? Twitter only went live in 2006. How do all these people think protests were organized in 2005? Do these white wing nuts think Paul Revere came home one night and said, “Honey, I’ve been deplatformed. Nobody will sell me a saddle. Curse you, King George, you mad, brilliant bastard.”
Nah, the people who tried to rebel against the government on January 6 had the same suite of First Amendment protections that were available to them on January 20. What they lost over the intervening two weeks was courage. And nerve. And the false sense of importance generated by spending their lives in an online echo chamber. It’s not “fun” plotting the violent overthrow of the government when nobody can “like” your rebellion. It’s not “cool” to share baseless online conspiracies when your employer fires you the next day. It’s not “strong” to share memes about harming elected officials when it gets you kicked off the force.
These people will be back, of course, because social media companies have a business incentive to bring them back. The platforms want to create echo chambers and news silos where extremists feel “safe” and can have their worldviews confirmed by the wisdom of the like-minded crowd. Telling people “you’re right” keeps them glued to the screen, sharing their information and seeing advertisements. Telling people “you’re a crazy nut job” makes them feel “sad” and put down their phones. I do not believe people like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey have learned anything from the insurrection they helped foment that will prevent them from making the same mistakes in the future. Even if they have, there will always be another tech bro eager to grab the “underserved” white-supremacist market share.
Social media companies can never again act like they’re merely neutral players in the marketplace of ideas. They’ve created tools that can be used to radicalize people to commit violence. They’ve created a way for strongmen (and con men playing at strongman) to mobilize an insurrection against the government. If they refuse to police the forces they’ve unleashed, our country will continue to be overrun with lies and violence.
But these problems are not intractable. The forces that led to Trumpism are not destined to thrive. Flush out the violent leaders of these movements from their online hidey-holes and leave their deranged followers to protest in peace. We can survive the people who are actually willing to show up to a protest; we can’t survive people who have been sent to mount an insurrection. Showing up to a protest is a right, one that requires some measure of courage. Showing up to an insurrection is a violation of that right, and must be met with accountability and justice.
Inciting a mob online through social media is not a right. It is a privilege. One that social media companies should revoke. After four years of Trump, we now have proof that deplatforming liars and violent extremists just might save the country.