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'Four years of propaganda': Trump social media bans come too late, experts say

Guardian Technology 08 Jan 2021 06:00

In the 24 hours since the US Capitol in Washington was seized by a Trump-supporting mob disputing the results of the 2020 election, American social media companies have barred the president from their platforms for spreading falsehoods and inciting the crowd.

Facebook, Snapchat and Twitch suspended Donald Trump indefinitely. Twitter locked his account temporarily. Multiple platforms removed his messages.

Those actions, coming just days before the end of Trump’s presidency, are too little, too late, according to misinformation experts and civil rights experts who have long warned about the rise of misinformation and violent rightwing rhetoric on social media sites and Trump’s role in fueling it.

“This was exactly what we expected,” said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project who studies the rise of movements like QAnon. “It is very consistent with how the coalescing of different factions responsible for what happened yesterday have been operating online, and how platforms’ previous attempts to deal with them have fallen short.”

Trump supporters fly a US flag with a QAnon symbol outside the Capitol on Wednesday.
Trump supporters fly a US flag with a QAnon symbol outside the Capitol on Wednesday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

QAnon theories and communities have flourished on Facebook this year. By the time the company banned QAnon-themed groups, pages and accounts in October, hundreds of related pages and groups had amassed more than 3 million followers and members.

Trump’s leverage of social media to spread propaganda has gone largely unchecked amid a vacuum of laws regulating government speech on social media, said Jennifer M Grygiel, assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University and expert on social media.

Grygiel cited the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which regulates the distribution of government propaganda, as an example of one law that limits the government’s communication. But such regulation does not exist for the president’s Twitter account, Grygiel said. Instead we have relied on the assumption the president would not use his social media account to incite an insurrection.

In the absence of any meaningful regulation, tech companies have had little incentive to regulate their massively profitable platforms, curb the spread of falsehoods that produce engagement and moderate the president.

“The violence that we witnessed today in our nation’s capital is a direct response to the misinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech that have been allowed to spread on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc,” said Jim Steyer, who runs the non-profit children’s advocacy organization Common Sense Media and helped organize the Stop Hate for Profit campaign (with the ADL and a number of civil rights organizations), which called on advertisers to boycott Facebook over hate speech concerns and cost Facebook millions.

Facebook and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

Grygiel said: “We need non-partisan work here. We need legislation that ensures no future president can ever propagandize the American people in this way again.”

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