Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, announced on Thursday that President Donald Trump’s accounts on that platform and on Instagram have been banned indefinitely. The justification for the unprecedented move is that Trump’s accounts are fomenting violence. But whatever one thinks of the president’s actions or social media statements on Wednesday, censoring the sitting president of the United States on these platforms is not a proper remedy.
The logic behind the ban is tenuous at best. Trump did not call for violence or the storming of the Capitol, and while his real-time reaction to the events seemed to many as insufficient, he was not condoning them. He did not, for example, tweet out to his supporters asking them to donate to a bail fund for the rioters, as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris did during the Minneapolis riots. This is a blatant and obvious double-standard.
Zuckerberg says the president’s claims of voter fraud are not true and that it would be too dangerous to allow him to continue making them on Facebook. But if expressing an opinion that might lead some to violence is enough to earn a user a ban, then Facebook is using an inverse heckler’s veto. There are all kinds of opinions that could lead people to act violently. Facebook should not arbitrate those opinions if they do not contain a direct call for violence. They certainly should not be doing so in a politically biased manner.
It is also important to recognize that Facebook is not a neutral party here. Nobody has argued more strenuously to revoke Section 230 than Trump and his congressional allies. That is a direct threat to Facebook, which would lose protections it currently has and be subject to lawsuits just like any other publisher. The upshot is that the company is choosing to silence one of its most significant critics.
The taking of the Capitol that led to the death of one of the women involved cannot be defended, but it also must not become an excuse to trample free speech. This is not a First Amendment issue, as Facebook is a private company, but it does speak to the more important spirit of free speech. The First Amendment is not a punishment, rather it sets the example that the free flow of information is better than a situation in which elite institutions are suppressing ideas.
This will move well beyond Facebook or social media in general, to private colleges and universities, and to corporate HR departments. Progressives have long held, quite wrongly, that some speech is literally violence. This is an absurdity. Protesters on the left regularly say things like “burn it down” or “No justice, no peace.” These are much more direct calls for violence than anything Trump said. If this rule Facebook just invented for Trump were equally applied, then myriad posts and users would face indefinite bans.
Facebook is justifying itself by saying Trump is lying about election fraud, but that is a very flimsy excuse. In October, during the election, Facebook limited sharing of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden and his infamous laptop. That story turned out to be completely accurate, and dozens of stories claiming the Post had been had by Russian intelligence freely flowed on the platform even though that turned out to be the lie.
Again, Facebook is free to do all of this, at least for now, but given the major role it plays in the public discourse, it absolutely should not. Facebook insists that it is not making editorial decisions, that it leaves fact-checking to outside experts, but in practice, very likely owing to the progressive bent of the company itself, it disproportionately hides content from conservative sources.
Zuckerberg is not letting this crisis go to waste and will likely not be alone in calling for speech restrictions as a result of Wednesday’s events. Censoring Trump’s feeds is a deeply un-American act that also accrues to the company’s own political and economic benefit. The riots and looting this summer were caused by dubious claims that the police in the United States are a white-supremacist organization targeting black people for murder. Should people making that claim be banned from social media? Of course not.
Facebook’s product is very powerful: It feeds the news to people all over the world. If it claims simply to be a neutral marketplace of ideas, it has no justification in banning political speech. People deserve an opportunity to engage in free political discourse, not just the discourse that Zuckerberg thinks is appropriate. This is a dangerous precedent, and Facebook should reverse the decision immediately.