How Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are dealing with the fallout of Trump's chaos
Facebook suspended President Donald Trump’s account on Thursday in its most drastic penalty yet, and one that many people consider was long overdue. The issue of social media and its role in fomenting unrest has been a pressing one, including within the digital ad industry, and brands are watching platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for how they respond to the violence in Washington.
Advertisers, along with the rest of the world, were stunned Wednesday as a mob attacked Congress, and it led to a new round of soul-searching in an industry already concerned about its own role in funding platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. More than 1,000 brands had joined an ad boycott in July to get Facebook to fix disinformation and hate-speech problems. That month-long boycott was sparked by one of Trump’s social media messages on Facebook and Twitter during the protests against the police killing of George Floyd.
On Wednesday, many advertisers went into a familiar stance, shutting down ad spending on social media to avoid associating their brands with the chaos. “A lot of clients are pausing all social media activity,” one ad agency exec says, echoing the sentiments of many industry leaders, who spoke with Ad Age but only on the condition of anonymity.
“It’s not just Facebook,” says another advertising agency leader. “The platforms’ business models have depended on amplifying incendiary content in some part and it doesn’t take much to have a major impact.”
On Thursday, Facebook suspended Trump on Facebook and Instagram, at least through the inauguration. Google’s YouTube and Twitter also took steps to limit exposure to information coming from Trump. And on Wednesday, Twitch, announced that it was shutting down Trump’s channel. Meanwhile, Snapchat completely disabled Trump’s access to that service, as well, the company said in a statement.
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, who has been a relentless advocate of social media reforms over the years, said that Facebook and Twitter handled the situation appropriately. Twitter blocked Trump from posting for at least 12 hours and removed tweets that were seen as promoting violence in Washington. The company also put Trump on notice that the account could be suspended forever. On Thursday, Facebook shut down Trump’s page at least until the inauguration. “It was the right move,” Kint says of Facebook’s decision.
Yet even though Kint has been one of the strongest opponents of Facebook’s policies, and has demanded changes that would lower the temperature on incendiary speech online, he grasped the gravity of the moment. Kint said it was a bold step to silence any president of the United States. “It makes me uncomfortable to tell you that it’s the right decision for Facebook to suspend the president’s account,” Kint says.
The events in Washington on Wednesday served as a stark, “I told you so,” for the people who have continually protested social media’s role in spreading disinformation and its potential to cause violence, including the civil rights groups that organized the Facebook ad boycott in July.
The boycott had some effect. The industry—under the World Federation of Advertisers, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, and other major stakeholders—came together to draft rules about what constitutes hate speech and other dangerous activity. Platforms committed to enforce those rules.
On Wednesday, the civil rights groups that organized the boycott in July, were still demanding action from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and all social media.
“This is a dark day for democracy,” says Jonathan Greenblatt CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The ADL, which has been tracking extremists for decades, has been ringing the alarm about this potential scenario for years, for weeks, for months, for days, and we were not surprised at all by the bedlam that unfolded.
“Particularly because the president has been inciting this kind of event, calling for people to show up by spreading disinformation and lies trying to dispute the results of an election, as if it were contested when it wasn’t, as proven by the courts,” Greenblatt says.
The ADL and NAACP urged Twitter to turn off Trump’s account yesterday, before the company made the move to suspend his activity. “Look, he has used other social media, but Twitter has been his main go-to,” Greenblatt says. “That’s why I called at a minimum for [Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey] to suspend his account as Twitter would do for any other user.”
On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Trump was suspended from Facebook and Instagram. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
Facebook declined to comment beyond Zuckerberg’s statement. Facebook was not alone either. Twitter has suspended Trump for at least 12 hours, starting Wednesday. And YouTube removed a video, the same one Facebook and Twitter also took down, in which Trump seemed to condone the violence at the Capitol. Even Shopify took down Trump’s store from its e-commerce platform that enables merchants to sell their brand-name goods online.
By late Wednesday, Twitter was threatening to permanently suspend Trump. “Future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account,” Twitter’s safety team announced.
On Thursday, YouTube also continued to look for ways to isolate rhetoric from Trump and his supporters. YouTube has been taking down thousands of videos that promote false claims about the election being stolen from Trump. “Due to the disturbing events that transpired yesterday, and given that the election results have now been certified, starting today any channels posting new videos with false claims in violation of our policies will now receive a strike,” YouTube announced.