Silicon Valley is getting tougher on Trump and his supporters over hate speech and disinformation
The moves, such as labeling false posts by Trump and banishing forums devoted to supporting him after years of policy violations, have taken place across the industry in recent weeks, with actions by Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitch.
Even Facebook, which long has given wide latitude in allowing problematic posts by Trump and his followers, on Wednesday closed down a network of more than 100 accounts and pages affiliated with Trump confidante and felon Roger Stone. The action came years after his use of social media first came under the scrutiny of federal investigators and involved issues dating back to 2015 that the company said it had unearthed only recently.
Facebook and the other companies still are stopping well short of establishing the guardrails advocated by Democrats, civil rights groups and independent researchers who study online hate speech and misinformation. Twitter’s recent refusal to impose sanctions against Trump for posting a video in which a supporter shouted “white power” underscores the awkward balancing act underway at many technology companies. Trump deleted the post after several hours and pleas from his senior staff. A person familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic said Twitter did not ask the White House to delete the tweet.
But the newfound aggressiveness in tackling such issues, however belated and partial, may create a social media landscape ahead of the November election that is less freewheeling — and less open to abusive language and false claims — than the one four years ago. It comes at a time that Trump’s standing in the polls is slipping.
“It’s about time,” said Joan Donovan, at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy. “The advertising pressure coupled with Trump losing his shock value means a new political opportunity is open for platform companies to treat Trump like other users. But, to be clear, he tweeted a video with ‘white power’ as its main message and he didn’t lose his account. He’s still somewhat untouchable.”
These shifts have come amid a rash of misinformation about the deadly coronavirus and national political unrest over police violence and race that has played out among employees in Silicon Valley, causing them to protest their company’s policies regarding permissible speech.
Pushes for change also have drawn their energy from a mounting advertiser boycott of Facebook, which along with subsidiary Instagram is often portrayed by critics as a particularly problematic purveyor of false and dangerous posts — complaints underscored by a blistering civil rights report released by the company’s own auditors Wednesday.
“Our struggle is that Facebook, the largest of all of them, has done nothing of consequence to protect our democracy,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who was among the civil rights leaders who met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives Tuesday. “There is much more to be done. Other platforms are at least looking forward.”
Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja declined to comment for this story.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh criticized recent actions by technology companies. “The outrageous Silicon Valley censorship war on President Trump and his supporters continues,” Murtaugh said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Social media platforms consistently enforce their rules in an arbitrary manner, and it always goes in one direction.”
But others contend that the technology industry had grown far too permissive — and too fearful of angering Trump and his supporters — to establish effective policies against disinformation and hate speech and to enforce the ones it already had.
Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said Facebook still hasn’t done nearly enough to protect against a recurrence of the online manipulation — by the Russians and others — that marred that election. Even with bolstered teams to fight foreign influence and transparency initiatives such as Facebook’s Ad Library, he said, the platforms still profit from malicious content.
“My take on all these rule changes are that they’re good but it’s all just nibbling around the edges,” Mook said.
Trump and his campaign strategists long have made social media a cornerstone of their political messaging strategy and worked to undermine efforts to curb what’s permitted on the platforms, typically by claiming bias against conservatives while threatening federal action against the companies. Trump already has spent more than $49 million on Facebook ads ahead of the November election and has reached many others with free posts to his 28 million supporters on the platform.
In contrast, Trump’s presumed Democratic opponent in November, Joe Biden, has spent about half as much, according to Facebook’s Ad Library, which tracks spending.
Twitter, the platform most heavily used by Trump to reach his 83 million followers and shape the international news cycle with his musings, took the first stand in the new push to rein in disinformation pushed by Trump, adding fact-checking labels to two of his posts May 26 that equated mail-in voting with electoral fraud, despite years of evidence from numerous states that such voting practices are no more vulnerable to manipulation than in-person polling.
The company has since labeled five of his posts, while also limiting access to a tweet that appeared to suggest that government authorities would fire on looters amid unrest over the George Floyd killing. Twitter hid the tweet from public timelines because it violated the policy against glorifying violence, the company said, forcing users who wanted to see it to click through to another screen.
Facebook declined to do the same with a similar post on that platform. Deputies to Zuckerberg instead chose to personally urge Trump, in phone calls to the White House, to remove or alter the post after company officials determined that it was very close to violating policies against threatening violence. Trump ultimately added a second post on Twitter offering context that portrayed his previous one as a warning, helping to bring it in line with Facebook policies.
But the company’s reluctance to act drew furious internal rebukes from thousands of employees. It also was among the factors that sparked a boycott by hundreds of major advertisers, including such corporate stalwarts as Verizon, Unilever and Coca-Cola, that began in earnest July 1.
Snapchat became the second platform to take action against Trump, announcing June 3 that it would no longer promote Trump’s account on its “Discover” tab, saying the company would no longer “amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice.”
With the advertising boycott brewing, Facebook announced June 26 that it would remove posts that incite violence or attempt to suppress voting — even from political leaders — and that the company would affix labels on posts that violate hate-speech prohibitions.
That move was quickly followed by Amazon-owned Twitch announcing June 29 that it was suspending Trump’s account, over which he live-streamed campaign rallies, for “hateful conduct.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
That same day, Reddit also announced it was closing r/The_Donald, a forum that for most of the previous five years had been a hotbed of support for Trump and also a disturbing hub for racism, anti-Semitism, the glorification of violence and conspiracy theories. Reddit had taken action against the forum numerous times before, including after it helped incubate the Pizzagate false conspiracy theory in November 2016.
Most of the 790,000 supporters and the forum’s volunteer moderators had left before Reddit finally acted, but CEO Steve Huffman told reporters he had grown tired of “bending over backward” to accommodate a forum that routinely descended into “attacking people” rather than building community. He announced the company’s first hate-speech policy the same day.
Why the companies have chosen the past month to impose new hate-speech regulations is open to conjecture. The raw feelings on display after Floyd’s death, and Trump’s call for a military response to put down the protests, probably helped drive it, said one senior executive in the tech industry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“The full unmasking of Trump as a racist was emotional for everyone in the country, and for a lot of people in Silicon Valley, we just felt, you can’t talk yourself into ‘bothsideism’ anymore,” the executive said.
Another veteran technology company official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive industry conversations candidly, said it had become impossible to ignore Trump’s violations of platform rules.
“Political speech has been the third rail for companies,” this executive said. “Confronted with targeted harassment and outright disinformation from the highest levels of government, it’s no longer defensible. It’s not a one-off. It’s an explicit pattern of behavior.”
Activism among the tech platforms’ employees, who accused their employers of contributing to racial injustice, also played a decisive role.
While outrage among Facebook’s workforce has spilled over into public view, employees at other social media companies also have demanded more action from their leaders, according to people who work at those companies.
Reddit’s takedowns were in part prompted by an open letter written by hundreds of volunteer moderators who administer the company’s more popular discussion forums. The letter chastised Reddit’s leadership for the proliferation of hateful speech, calling it the company’s “most glaring problem.” The moderators demanded that Reddit enact a policy against racism, slurs and hate speech and ban more hateful communities.
Executives said they felt the decisions made in recent weeks might not alter the tenor of political debate significantly going into the election but it was time to take some stand. “The better angels in Silicon Valley have lived up to what people think we’re made of,” said the first executive.
Some longtime industry observers said these tougher actions against hate speech and racism come far too late.
“A lot of what has been previously thought of as fringe behavior has been brought to center stage by these platforms. They’ve been complicit for a very long time. You can ban a few people — even the president — but on platforms that have a billion people, there are so many dark corners,” said Om Malik, longtime Silicon Valley observer and partner at the venture capital firm True Ventures. “And instead of coming up with a solution for the entire network, they are banning individuals.”