The day Facebook and Twitter's rules finally applied to Donald Trump

There's finally a line that even the president isn't allowed to cross.

UPDATE 1/8 7:10pm ET: Twitter has permanently banned Donald Trump due to “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

Facebook and Twitter finally delivered an answer to what has been one of the most pressing questions during Donald Trump’s presidency: What would it take for him to actually lose his accounts?

After years of fierce criticism, it’s no longer a hypothetical question. Facebook and Twitter have both temporarily pulled the plug on Trump’s account, after the president incited a mob to storm the Capitol. For Twitter, the suspension lasted less than a day, and resulted in the removal of just three tweets. While Facebook imposed a lengthier penalty, extending its initial one-day ban to “at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

Though it was the first time the platforms had imposed any kind of ban on the president, it was far from the first time the companies faced pressure to do so.

Twitter, which has long been Trump’s preferred social media app, has faced questions about Trump’s rhetoric since he first began promoting the birther conspiracy theory. In 2017, critics argued that Trump’s tweets about North Korea broke the company’s rules regarding violent threats. Twitter ultimately said no; explaining that under its “newsworthiness” policy tweets from world leaders were generally considered to be in the “public interest,” and thus the company had an obligation to let them stay up.

Dorsey made a similar argument last year, when pressed by Congress on why Twitter didn’t sanction Iran’s leader for threatening Israel. “We did not find those to violate our terms of service because we considered them ‘saber rattling,’ which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries,” Dorsey said at the time.

Twitter did make one concession between those two events, though. In 2019, the company said it would label tweets from politicians that would otherwise break its rules, while still allowing them to be viewed. The company said it was trying to "strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these tweets."

This was the policy put to the test last May when Trump tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” in response to the protests over the killing of George Floyd. Twitter said the tweet glorified violence and put a “public interest notice” on it.

If Twitter has at times seemed reluctant to punish Trump, Facebook has been even more permissive. The company has, notably, declined to fact check Trump (or any other politician) with Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly claiming an aversion to his company becoming an “arbiter of truth.” But the company’s first Trump-influenced rule change came in 2015, when he was still just a presidential candidate.

At the time, Trump posted a video calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Facebook employees reportedly wanted to take the video down under the company’s hate speech rules. The company ultimately declined to do so, and Zuckerberg “was talked out of his desire to remove the post,” according to The Washington Post. By 2016, Facebook had officially created an exemption for “newsworthy” content that may otherwise break its rules.

Though Facebook said the “newsworthiness exemption” was prompted by the company’s removal (and reinstatement) of a historical photograph, it also gave the company cover to avoid applying its rules to Trump and other world leaders.

By 2019, Zuckerberg was actively pushing back against calls for Facebook to better rein in Trump. That year, he gave a speech at Georgetown defending free speech. Facebook, he said would “err on the side of greater expression.” A month earlier, Facebook officials confirmed that politicians were not just exempt from the company’s rules, but from being accountable to its fact checkers.

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addresses the audience on "the challenges of protecting free speech while combating hate speech online, fighting misinformation, and political data privacy and security," at a forum hosted by Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) and the McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington, U.S., October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
Carlos Jasso / Reuters

Zuckerberg in particular seemed opposed to putting any kind of limits on Trump. When Twitter fact-checked the president’s tweets about election fraud last year, the Facebook CEO promptly criticized the move. When Twitter restricted Trump’s tweets that threatened protestors, Zuckerberg declined to take a similar action. He said — after a phone call from Trump — that Facebook’s policies allow for “discussion around state use of force.” (That decision prompted a virtual walkout from Facebook employees.)

But Zuckerberg has now changed his tune. On Wednesday, the company removed a video posted by Trump, in which he praised the rioters as “special” people, and then imposed a 24-hour suspension. By Thursday, the company had extended the lockout “for at least the next two weeks.”

“Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies,” Zuckerberg wrote on Thursday. “We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

The bigger question now may be what Facebook and Twitter decide to do next. After sitting out his timeout (and deleting three tweets), Trump has regained his tweeting privileges, though the company has said future rule-breaking could lead to a permanent ban. Facebook hasn’t indicated when it will turn his posting abilities back on.

Both companies are facing increasing pressure to permanently ban Trump — an action that just a few months ago would have been unthinkable for the platforms. “Now is the time for Silicon Valley companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior—and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their platforms," Michelle Obama wrote in a statement. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin also called for a longer suspension, urging Twitter to impose a more severe penalty. So did former Twitter executive Adam Sharp, who previously headed up the company’s work with lawmakers and government officials. Internally, some employees have also called for Twitter to “deactivate” his account, NBC News reported.

The next two weeks aside, there’s another reason for the urgency behind these calls. If Trump leaves office, but immediately declares himself a candidate for the 2024 race, Facebook and Twitter may once again opt to give him special consideration as a candidate for office. While still a hypothetical scenario, the prospect has prompted some critics to call for a lasting ban before he leaves office.

Whether or not that plays into Facebook or Twitter’s decision making isn’t clear. What is clear is that there’s less incentive than ever for them to make excuses about why it’s okay for Trump to violate their own policies. Trump’s accounts may finally have to follow the same rules as everyone else.