Donald Trump’s campaign manager sent a warning to Twitter last month, weeks after the social media company first took steps to add labels and context to the president’s often inflammatory tweets.
But Twitter did not appear to think much of Parscale’s warning. Less than a week later, the platform added a public interest notice to another Trump tweet for violating its policy against abusive behavior. Days after that, Reddit banned its largest pro-Trump subreddit over hate speech, and the streaming video platform Twitch temporarily suspended the president’s channel for violating its policy against “hateful conduct”.
As the president’s rhetoric on issues including vote by mail and the Black Lives Matter protests attracts more and more controversy, the companies’ escalating actions have led the president and his advisers to lash out against the social media giants. But the response is also forcing Trump and his campaign to consider alternative ways to spread their message before the presidential election in November. For a president who rose to power partly on the back of social media, it is a remarkable reversal of fortune.
Trump signed an executive order targeting social media companies in late May, days after Twitter added a fact-check to two of his tweets about voting by mail. The order was aimed at rolling back a legal shield for online platforms contained in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, and the justice department has since issued a recommendation urging Congress to repeal parts of the law.
But those actions do not seem to have deterred social media companies in their effort to crack down on hate speech when it comes from the American president.
Snap, the company that makes Snapchat, announced last month that it would no longer promote Trump’s posts on its Discover channel because it did not want to “amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover”.
Even Facebook, the social media company that has generally been most lenient with the president, said it would start removing posts that incite violence or seek to suppress voting, with no exceptions for politicians. Days before that, Facebook took down Trump campaign ads that included a symbol associated with the Nazis, saying the ads violated the company’s policy against “organized hate”.
Those decisions come as Facebook continues to face pressure from employees and advertisers to crack down on hate speech, with many critics saying the company’s recent steps do not go far enough to address the issue.
Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout last month over the company’s refusal to remove one of Trump’s posts about the recent protests against police brutality, and more than 300 companies have now joined an advertising boycott in response to the company’s policies on misinformation and hate speech.
The Trump campaign is looking at alternative ways to reach voters. A number of Trump’s advisers and allies have now joined Parler, the Twitter rival, and the campaign has increasingly used its own smartphone app to provide supporters with news and entertainment that is favorable to the president.
“We have always been worried about Twitter and Facebook taking us offline and this serves as a backup,” Parscale said of the campaign app in an interview with Reuters.
But other platforms simply cannot match the reach of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter.
The CEO of Parler, who has described the platform as “an open town square with no censorship”, said late last month that the number of Parler users had quickly climbed to 1.5 million. In comparison, Facebook and Twitter have 175.4 million and 53.5 million US users respectively, according to the market research firm eMarketer.
“There is no replacement for Facebook. There basically is no replacement for Twitter,” said David Karpf, a professor in the school of media and public affairs at the George Washington University. “If they move to these smaller sites, what they’re going to find is, ‘Well, this doesn’t have the audience.’”
Gautam Hans, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, added that social media companies touting a “no censorship” policy had previously become overrun with violent and hateful rhetoric, which could quickly force Parler to develop a content moderation policy. “And then basically you’re back where you were four months ago on Twitter,” Hans said. “You’re not going to be able to avoid these problems. They’re unavoidable.”
The social media companies’ repeated run-ins with Trump have only underscored the need for platforms to establish uniform rules around hate speech, Hans argued. “I think they thought they could get out of this situation in some meaningful, principled way without having to make a hard call,” Hans said. “I think the last month has demonstrated that that’s not going to happen.”
In the end, the recent steps taken by social media giants may be most important in terms of what they say about how those companies move forward in a world where politicians increasingly interact with voters through virtual platforms.
“Those are meaningful steps, and it’s worth applauding them,” Karpf said. “I don’t think they’re going to change the outcome of the election in meaningful ways, but when social media companies start taking responsibility for the platforms they provide and the activity on those platforms and take some authority for the power that they have, that is a good thing to see.”