Wednesday was an especially rough day to be a social media platform. When pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., during a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, it was the logical conclusion of years of outrage and grievance spewed out on Twitter and in Facebook groups across the U.S.
You can debate whether or not it is the platform’s fault, but it is absolutely their responsibility. The two aren’t the same, but the effect is. Whether you directly cause something to happen doesn’t really matter when you intentionally allow for the conditions that did cause it.
In that sense, as unthinkable as it is that a violent crowd of Americans were able to disrupt the United States Congress as it performed its Constitutional responsibility, it also feels inevitable. This is what happens when people are constantly fed inflammatory content that reinforces their extreme beliefs through an algorithm designed to do exactly that.
Today, in response to what many referred to as an act of insurrection, YouTube and Facebook removed a video by President Trump addressing protestors. Twitter first added a label to a tweet with the video, only to later remove it. In addition, the company said it has taken the extraordinary step of locking the @RealDonaldTrump account for 12 hours. In a tweet, the company said that further violations would result in a permanent suspension.
All three companies cited the likelihood that it could cause further violence, or because it included false claims about the 2020 election, as a reason for the removal. In its statement, Facebook said it was taking “emergency measures” by removing the video.
Certainly, those steps were necessary, but there is no question they come far too late.
UPDATE: Mark Zuckerberg released a statement on January 7 that Facebook is blocking President Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely.
This isn’t a question of whether the law should change to compel social media companies to act in a particular way. Lawmakers are notoriously bad at regulating tech companies, and I’m not sure that the ideas being floated (repealing the law known as Section 230, for example) would give anyone the outcome they desire. This is about the responsibility that comes with building a platform with the potential to influence people’s lives in this way.
In the past, the companies have said that they would leave up posts from the president, even while they removed similar content from other accounts, with the rationale that it was “newsworthy.” The problem is, if the news someone is trying to make amounts to insurrection, I think it’s fair to dispatch with the idea that it should be allowed on your platform.
Also, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not news organizations. They are private companies with absolute control over their platforms. That they don’t restrict most speech is certainly a good thing. I don’t know that we want Silicon Valley billionaires deciding what we can share online. That, however, isn’t the same thing as helping anyone, no matter who the person is or what office they hold, to radicalize people to the point that they end up storming the U.S. Capitol Building and occupying the floor of the U.S. Senate.
I think there’s an important lesson. Fortunately, it’s not even complicated. Really, it’s as simple as the one Peter Parker learned from his uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
There is no question that social media platforms have extraordinary power. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy for the people who lead giant tech companies to do the uncomplicated thing they know they should do. Mostly, that’s because they never thought it would come to this, even though it seemed obvious to many people that it always would.
There is a grave danger in thinking that the worst-case scenario could never happen. When you think it can’t, you act as though it won’t. That means you don’t protect against the possibility that it might. The problem is, if you build something that can be abused in this manner, you should assume that someone will absolutely try to do just that. If you don’t, you’ve failed as a leader.
Sure, you wouldn’t expect it to be the president of the United States, except, in this case, everything for the past four years has suggested that this has always been the most likely outcome. If you didn’t see that coming, it’s going to take a lot more than locking a Twitter account to fix what’s really wrong.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.