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While Facebook locked Trump’s account indefinitely, Twitter announced a temporary suspension. Trump could start tweeting again 12 hours after he deleted the video and a couple of other tweets repeating the stolen-election myth. But, Twitter warned, further violations would result in a permanent ban.
At that point, the die was basically cast. Trump had no chance of staying on the platform the moment he let slip anything remotely Trumpian. The company’s somewhat tortured analysis explaining its decision Friday strongly suggests as much. According to Twitter, for example, Trump’s use of the words “American Patriots” to describe his supporters was “being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.” His insistence that “they will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!,” meanwhile, was a sign that Trump does not “plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition.’”
This all feels like a bit of a stretch—more like a literature-seminar close reading than the enforcement of an intelligible content policy. And yet Twitter isn’t exactly wrong. Many of Trump’s online followers really were interpreting his tweets as coded messages and even calls to action. Twitter’s explanation pointed to chatter “on and off Twitter” about a proposed second Capitol assault on January 17. The fact that Trump’s posts were fueling the conspiracy fire was clear wherever you looked earlier Friday—on Twitter before he was banned or on alternative platforms, like Parler, favored by the right wing. Some QAnon believers, for instance, appear to have read Trump’s “GIANT VOICE” comment as a reference to a type of military warning system—and, perhaps, an order to his most militant followers to be on standby. The conspiracy-minded set of Trump voters engages in more fine-grained semiotics than any Sarah Lawrence English major.
In the end, then, what took down @realDonaldTrump was not what he tweeted, but the way his followers were interpreting it. In the specific context of this week—and given the threat of further violence by a radicalized Trump base convinced that their country is being stolen—that may be an understandable position for Twitter to take. It does not, however, make for a sustainable approach to content moderation moving forward. Few people would stand for a system in which users can be punished for the lunatic interpretations of their followers. I suspect that Twitter’s Trump ban will go down as a sort of social media Bush v. Gore—a one-off decision cobbled together in extraordinary circumstances that even its architects don’t intend to treat as precedent in the future.