The year 2021 has started in one of the most surreal ways possible: the Washington Capitol was stormed on January 6. Social media has been inundated with memes, photos and videos from this event which, no doubt, will be part of the history books.
Many of us were surprised. It is normal to think that it is very strange that such a massive event did not give signs before it happened.
If so, congratulations, the algorithm of social media like Twitter hasn’t detected your interest in conspiracy theories that claim the U.S. election has been rigged.
However, what happened on January 6 in Washington was the result of weeks and weeks of spreading false information on social media by Trump and his supporters on the outcome of the US presidential election.
Result: violence on Capitol Hill and the continued suspension of Donald Trump’s account on Twitter and other social networks.
We analyze the track record of the Capitol bombing, lay out the reasons why Twitter is making its decision, and we bring to the table the debate that arose after all of this: Is Twitter violating the right to freedom of expression?
Before the assault on the Capitol: Social media context
If you think social media is a neutral source of information, giving you access to comments and news from different ideologies, you are wrong. The algorithm of networks like Twitter knows you so well that it offers you information based on your interests, beliefs and ideology.
Twitter explains that their suggestions are based on your contacts, location (such as city and country you are in), your activity on Twitter (such as your tweets, people you follow, interactions), third-party websites to which you access via Twitter, etc.
This means that the people who stormed the Capitol received for weeks a continuous barrage of information that supports conspiracy theories. In other words, they really believe that the last American election was rigged.
According to a report by The Economist, 86% of Trump voters believe the election was “stolen.” We are talking about 72 million American citizens believing that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president.
As you might have imagined, it was Donald Trump himself who started it all. On the night of the last election, when the final results were not yet known, President Trump appeared on television proclaiming himself the election winner.
Twitter started to burn, especially for those the algorithm had known to detect their affinity with the Republican Party. President Trump used his Twitter account to reinforce this belief.
“We are winning, but they are trying to STEAL the election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the polls have closed, ”Donald Trump said on Twitter.
Although Twitter called its post “potentially misleading,” the misinformation continued. Social media platforms such as Facebook have emerged under the name “Stop theft” and organizations have grown around conspiracy theories like QAnon, the brainchild of the country’s far right.
Twitter has been used to call protests, such as the one on the Saturday following the election. It was the “MAGA Million March” (MAGA comes from Make America Great Again or Let’s make America great again, in Spanish).
Trump supported this march and said in his social networks that he could come “to say hello”.
The masses began to mobilize, the false news about the supposed election theft multiplied. Fake videos of alleged Trump voters not allowed to vote. Texts exposing false information about stolen votes.
And as this conspiratorial tide of misinformation mounted, there was still hope. The leader of this anti-democratic movement (i.e. Donald Trump) presented legal remedies to try to prove that the elections had been rigged (appeals which were rejected).
Most of the followers of this theory are extreme right-wing individuals and groups, such as the Proud Boys, an organization made up of white men who speak out against immigrants.
After weeks and weeks of tweets, speeches and conferences in which Trump continued to proclaim himself the election winner and accused the state of rigging the ballot box, January 6 has arrived.
It was at the Ellipse, a park near the White House. There, Trump gave a speech in which he encouraged what would happen hours later: the assault on Capitol Hill.
“We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell you’ll never have a country again,” “then we’re going down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to Capitol Hill,” Trump urged.
What happened hours later has been seen on the televisions of millions of people around the world. This enraged mass of staunch Trump supporters stormed the Capitol by force.
And while it surprised us, the signals had been on the networks for weeks. Extremist, far-right, armed and violent groups faithfully believing what their leader Trump has been saying for some time on platforms like Twitter: that the elections have been stolen.
Twitter permanently suspends Trump’s account
And then what should have happened a long time ago happened: Twitter suspends Donald Trump’s account. Although the former president has been using the plat form for months to spread hate speech, a violent event like the one on January 6 had to take place for Twitter to respond.
Twitter published a statement on January 8 in which it explained that after examining the various tweets on the @realDonaldTrump account, they had decided to suspend the account because of the “risk of inciting further violence”.
The social network determined its decision based on the following factors:
- The fact that Trump claimed he was not going to show up at the presidential inauguration ceremony. This confirmed his belief that the elections were not legitimate.
- His tweets motivate violent extremist groups.
- The use of terms such as “American patriots” to refer to those who supported him was seen as supporting the acts of violence that took place on Capitol Hill.
- Tweets showing that Trump has no plans to facilitate an orderly transition and instead plans to continue supporting and protecting those who believe they have won the election.
- The sample of plans for future armed protests had already started to proliferate (on and off Twitter), including a proposed secondary attack on the Capitol and State Capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.
Since Twitter made the decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account, more than ten digital platforms have followed in his footsteps: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Apple are examples.
On the other hand, despite the fact that this decision was applauded by many people around the world, it also received quite a bit of criticism, even from people who do not support Trump.
Twitter Suspends Trump’s Account: What About Free Speech?
This is when concepts such as freedom of speech and censorship enter the debate. Many people disagreed with Twitter’s decision.
Without going any further and without surprise, Santiago Abascal claimed to have started conversations with “international political leaders” to face the “attack” on freedom of expression by Twitter.
Likewise, German Chancellor Angela Merkel explains that she is concerned about Twitter’s decision because it appears to “limit freedom of expression”.
If we analyze the legal point of view, we have to understand that Twitter is a private company, so you have the right to take steps to control its content.
The US Congressional Research Service explained that freedom of speech in the First Amendment does not apply to private sector organizations.
In other words, freedom of expression applies when an individual is harmed by government action. When a government bans the publication of certain content, we could speak of censorship, but it must be understood that a private company must be free to decide the type of content it publishes.
Now, if we focus on analyzing what is legitimate and what is not, beyond legality, we have to take into account that often there is a tendency to mistakenly believe that the freedom of expression means being able to make public whatever is wanted.
It’s not like that. If this same media published any kind of hate speech (which will not happen), we would surely face legal action for violating the fundamental rights of certain groups.
On the other hand, if we decide to publish false information, without any evidence or sources to prove that this information is true, surely we will also have to go through the courts.
When we talk about freedom of expression, we cannot ignore other fundamental rights that freedom of expression must always take into account.
We are talking about the “right to honor, identity and self-image” or “the right to receive truthful information”, among many others.
Can you imagine the chaos it would mean if media or broadcasting platforms like Twitter could post whatever they wanted, including hate speech and fake news that violated the rights of others?
No need to imagine, take a look at what happened on January 6 at the Capitol in Washington.