Yesterday -- Jan. 6, 2021 -- was a day that will live in infamy for the US. Rioters, urged on by President Donald Trump, successfully attacked the US Capitol.
For weeks, President Trump had been spreading false claims that the election had somehow been stolen from him. Then, President Trump tweeted: "I hope the Democrats ... are looking at the thousands of people pouring into DC. They won't stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen." And, underlining what he expected these protestors to do, he called for Republicans to "FIGHT!"
The first social media coup -- complete with terrorists taking selfies in the Senate chambers -- was underway.
Enough. Stop him. Stop him now.
For years, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sites have let President Trump repeat lie after lie. They've enabled him to attack his enemies, including Vice President Mike Pence, when Pence disagrees with him.
Over a century ago, in the 1919 Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) case Schenck v. US, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote that "free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
That SCOTUS decision was later modified in 1969's Brandenburg v. Ohio. In that case, the Court ruled that the government could not punish inflammatory speech unless it was "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Imminent lawless action? That would include breaking into the Capitol Building.
Thanks to the Communications Decency Act's Section 230, online services may moderate sites without legal liability. In short, they don't have to give President Trump a bully pulpit -- an especially apt metaphor -- to say whatever lies he wants when he wants.
President Trump is now de facto guilty of sedition -- the incitement of insurrection against lawful authority. Sedition is a crime in which people conspire to overthrow the US government, or "prevent, hinder, or delay the execution" of US law by force. It's punishable by a fine and up to 20 years in prison. But that's a story for another day.
We've been arguing in social network management circles for years over how much moderation should be exerted over any social network user and, in particular, President Trump. Now, though, as Casey Newton said in The Verge:
Americans voted Trump out of office, but instead of accepting that result, he has sought to overturn it. By inciting the violent occupation of the US Capitol, Trump has given up any legitimate claim to power. In 14 days, barring catastrophe, he will be out of office. The only question is how much damage he will do in the meantime — and we know, based on long experience, that his Twitter and Facebook accounts will be among his primary weapons.
Twitter, Facebook, et. al., must stop allowing President Trump to use them this way. After the violence in Washington DC, Twitter -- followed by Facebook and Instagram -- temporarily blocked President Trump's accounts. More recently, Facebook and Instagram blocked his accounts for the next two weeks. YouTube has just instituted a strike policy that blocks false claims about the election. With this move, President Trump's been blocked from posting to YouTube.
That's a good start, but more needs to be done.
Despite the right-wing fantasies about Facebook, Twitter, and others muzzling them for years, President Trump and his right-wing advocates have been free to say whatever they wanted, no matter how fictitious. With over 80 million Twitter followers, President Trump has said whatever he wanted to one of the largest social network audiences on the planet.
And he has fed that huge audience a steady stream of lies, conspiracy theories, and self-aggrandizing fantasies. Locked in their social-network echo-chambers, his followers believe in a reality that has only a marginal relationship with the real world.
For example, I have an otherwise intelligent friend who insists that the evidence for massive voter fraud has never been fairly examined. In fact, President Trump and his legal allies are zero for 42 in their court cases trying to prove election fraud. Local, state, and federal courts in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania have all rejected his attempts to overturn the election. And that, I might add, includes rulings against him by numerous Trump-appointed judges.
There is no "there" there. There's no evidence to support election fraud. There's only the constant repeating of lies by President Trump and his followers.
If these lies were harmless -- like those fools who believe the Earth is flat -- it wouldn't matter. These are not harmless lies. President Trump's lies led to the deaths of at least four people during the Capitol riots. These are lies that strike at the very roots of American democracy.
For the good of the country, President Trump and others who spread lies designed to incite violence against others and the country must be stopped. He and his ilk must be banned from the major social networks.
That won't stop them. As Jane Lytvynenko and Molly Hensley-Clancy reported at BuzzFeed, the Jan. 6 attack had been planned on niche web forums and right-wing social network Parler for weeks.
How these niche sites and networks should be dealt with is a problem for another day. President Trump and those like him can always find their audience in right-wing news media sites such as One America News and Newsmax, Parler, or his own websites. But it's well past time to bar him from the major, public spaces of the internet.