For years now there has been a debate about the role of social media companies in policing the content that is published on their sites. Over the last week that debate came to a head when first Facebook and Instagram, and then finally Twitter, chose to suspend President Donald Trump from their platforms.
To be clear, these companies did not suspend the government account of the Office of the President. They suspended the accounts of Donald Trump the citizen, accounts that had been in use well before Trump became president.
Some welcomed the suspension after the attacks on the United States Capitol, which are widely considered to be a direct result of Trump’s rhetoric since the election. Others claimed the suspension was too little too late and that the damage had been done. And others still, the ardent supporters of the president, have been crying foul.
The people opposed to Trump’s removal have been painting this as a violation of free speech. It’s a question that has been on everyone’s minds since the suspension, “was this legal.”
The answer is simple: yes.
While it is difficult to apply some laws to social media companies because of the time frame they were written, this one is clear cut. The first amendment to the Constitution, that enshrines the citizens of the United States with freedom of speech, is applied only when an individual’s right to speech is violated by the government.
In short, freedom of speech does not apply to private companies. And here is where things get a little sticky. Social media companies have become so big, and so widely used, that many no longer see them as private sector entities, but rather as public utilities.
Unfortunately, it was Trump’s own administration that fought to roll back the Obama-era rules regarding net neutrality that make it harder to treat the internet as a public utility. But that’s neither here nor there, in the long-run, social media companies, despite their ubiquity, are privately owned companies.
The other big question that has been bandied about was the “how.” How did these companies decide to suspend Trump and not other politicians? Many on the right in America feel as though these big tech companies have been discriminating against right-wing ideology. The truth of the matter is more nuanced, as these things almost always tend to be.
Whenever you sign up for a profile on Facebook, or Twitter, or Amazon, the companies make you agree to a Terms of Service contract. These contracts, as legal precedent has shown time and time again, are binding. These Terms of Service agreements include behavior that is allowed and behavior that is not allowed on these sites. Trump was found to have violated those terms of agreement by “inciting violence.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “nobody ever reads those things.” And you aren’t wrong. But by clicking that agree button you are affirming that you consent to follow the rules laid forth in the Terms of Service. Regardless of who you are, if your post violates that agreement, you likely will see some form of pushback from the site, whether that is removal of the post, suspension or a ban.
I’ve never been a big fan of the monopoly on communication that these social media bubbles have created. And frankly, I think Twitter and Facebook showed real cowardice by waiting this long to ban Trump. He has been violating their terms of agreement for years. But, with the Democrats now in control of the house, senate and presidency, they felt safe enough to finally lay the ban hammer down.
Many people are calling on a boycott of these companies for their actions. And they are more than willing to try, but the fact of the matter is that, until we learn to live without social media, it will continue to divide us politically. Regardless of which side you are on.