THE MEGAPHONE has been taken away. On January 8th Twitter, a social network, announced that it was “permanently suspending” President Donald Trump’s account. Viewed in isolation, the two tweets that led to the ban were, by Mr Trump’s standards, fairly innocuous, but Twitter said it had taken its decision in the wake of the riot at America’s Congress on January 6th, in which five people died as legislators’ offices were ransacked by a crowd of Mr Trump’s supporters after Mr Trump had encouraged them to march on the Capitol, The social network said that continuing to give Mr Trump access risked allowing him to incite further violence.
Other social networks have taken a similarly tough line. Facebook has said that Mr Trump’s account will be banned for “at least” the remainder of his term in office, which is due to expire on January 20th. Snapchat, a smaller social network, has likewise blocked the president’s access. Besides defenestrating Mr Trump, Twitter also banned the accounts of Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell, two of the president’s dwindling circle of allies. And it promised to do the same for accounts dedicated to QAnon, a nutty but resilient conspiracy theory that holds that America is run by a cabal of Satanic paedophiles.
The suspensions mark the most drastic actions that social-media platforms have yet taken to enforce their rules on what can and cannot be said on their platforms. Both Twitter and Facebook had said previously that politicians would be held to lower standards than ordinary users, on the grounds that their utterances—even the sort of inflammatory or false ones of which Mr Trump was fond—were of wide interest. More recently, they had taken to labelling or blocking a greater number of untrue or potentially harmful posts. Twitter, for example, had pushed back on some of Mr Trump’s wilder claims about the election by appending notices to some of his tweets, saying that their contents were disputed. But the outright bans prove that tech-company bosses such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg feel there are limits to such indulgences.
Reaction has been split. Mr Trump’s opponents, as well as many academics who study online media, welcomed the decision; some called it overdue. After his personal account was banned, Mr Trump used the official account of the American presidency to accuse Twitter of attempting to silence him, and of giving a platform to some of the “most vicious people in the world”. (Twitter later deleted those tweets, though it did not ban the account). Some prominent politicians from the Republican party, which Mr Trump leads, condemned the decision. “Speech should be free whether you agree or not,” said Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “We aren’t in China.” Even Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, weighed in (on Twitter) to oppose the ban, saying it set a precedent that “will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world”.
Nor was it just social-media companies cracking down. Apple and Google act as gatekeepers to virtually every smartphone on the planet. In the wake of the riots both have banned Parler, a Twitter alternative popular with American right-wingers, from their app stores. Both firms said that some of the rioters had used the app to plan. Amazon quickly followed suit, kicking Parler off its web-hosting service.
Disentangling principles from expediency is tricky. Like almost everything else in modern America, tech firms have been sucked into the country’s all-consuming culture wars. Republicans accuse social networks of censoring conservatives; the Democrats of allowing lies and threats to proliferate unchecked. Both have threatened regulatory crackdowns. Having lost the election, and with the Democrats due to take control of both the presidency and of Congress, Mr Trump is a lame duck. He is made lamer by the fall-out from the Capitol Hill debacle, with even close allies scrambling to distance themselves from him. The political cost of banning him is therefore lower than it has ever been.
All the same, it is hard to avoid the sense that the social-media firms have reached a point of no return. Disquiet about the power and reach of social media is not confined to political partisans. Britain, Australia, Singapore, Brazil and the EU have passed, or are mooting, new rules designed to regulate social media. The banning of the world’s most powerful politician will raise the temperature even further. The firms’ in-house enforcement policies—which are spotty and inconsistently applied—will come under even more intense scrutiny.
So far, most analysis has focused on the implications for American politics. But the fallout from the decision could cause just as many headaches elsewhere. Critics of Twitter’s decision lost little time pointing out that the firm is apparently happy to continue to host Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. Amid a wave of extra-judicial killings, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, likes to boast about how many alleged “drug dealers” he has personally slain. Facebook has been one of Mr Duterte’s most important political tools.
One early flashpoint could be India, where Facebook is embroiled in the struggle between the left-wing Congress party and the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both sides accuse the firm of favouring the other. Indian culture wars can be even more lethal than the American sort: anti-Muslim riots in Delhi last year that killed more than 50 people. Shortly after Twitter announced Mr Trump’s ban, Tejasvi Surya, the president of the BJP’s youth wing, tweeted that “if they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone”, and suggested that the sooner India passed new rules regulating tech firms, “[the] better for our democracy”.