During Donald Trump's four years as president, social media companies struggled to figure out how to moderate his presence. On one hand, he’s the leader of the free world using their platforms to deliver his message. On the other, he’s a dangerous conspiracy theorist whose aggrieved, paranoid posts often violate rules that would result in his suspension were he any other user.
But as of January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be president of these United States, and without that title he won’t be afforded the additional leniency social media platforms have given him for the last few years. It seems unlikely that Trump will drastically recalibrate his social media presence on January 21, so how will Twitter, Facebook, and others treat citizen Trump in just a few short months?
Twitter has had perhaps the most contentious relationship with Trump. It's the platform that he used to rise to political prominence (on the back of the racist "birther" conspiracy, no less) and the one that he used to announce policies as president. Much of his activity on the platform went unchecked.
"Twitter’s approach to world leaders, candidates, and public officials is based on the principle that people should be able to choose to see what their leaders are saying with clear context," a spokesperson for Twitter tells Mic. The company's general position has been to keep tweets from public officials up even when they violate the platform's rules, on the grounds that because it comes from a world leader, there is a distinct public interest in seeing that message.
Trump, as he has the tendency to do, tested this standard regularly. It wasn't until earlier this year that Twitter finally took some sort of action, applying a gentle fact check to tweets from the president that questioned the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. That escalated as the 2020 election cycle ramped up and eventually resulted in Twitter placing offending tweets behind a notice indicating that they violate the company's rules. While Twitter states that it keeps rule-violating tweets up when they come from elected officials, that will no longer apply to Trump after January 20. "This policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions," a spokesperson for the company tells Mic.
We already have a decent idea of what rules enforcement could look like for Trump once he is out of office. Earlier this year, a Twitter user created an account called @SuspendThePres. The account simply reposts everything that Donald Trump posts to see how Twitter handles the content when it comes from an average person. It took just 68 hours for the account to receive its first suspension, which limited it from tweeting for 12 hours and required the account to delete the offending tweet. (The tweet in question was Trump's "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" tweet.) According to the account, it has been suspended four times and received a number of other rules enforcement based solely on the content of its tweets.
Facebook has arguably been the laxest social network when it comes to handling Trump's regular tantrums. Guided by CEO Mark Zuckerberg's insistence that the company should not be the "arbiter of truth" and fears of riling the conservatives who dominate the platform, the company has often taken a hands-off approach to handling Trump's posts.
There have been a few noteworthy exceptions in which Facebook has taken action, typically relating to Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The company removed a video posted by Breitbart and shared by Trump that claimed Democrats and Dr. Anthony Fauci were working together to suppress the use of hydroxychloroquine in order to "perpetuate COVID deaths and hurt Trump." It also took down a post by the president that makes the false claim that coronavirus is "far less lethal" than the flu, which he posted just hours after leaving the hospital after getting treated for coronavirus. The company also banned a Trump campaign ad that pretty overtly used Nazi symbols.
Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how the company plans to moderate Trump's accounts once he is no longer an elected official. The company's standing position since 2016 has been that speech that would otherwise violate the company's community standards can remain on the platform if it is determined that "the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm." In 2019, the company updated that policy to note that speech from politicians will by default be treated as newsworthy content "that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard."
However, the company does not have a clear policy for how it treats speech from former public officials. It seems likely that Trump's speech will still be considered "newsworthy" by Facebook's standards. The company has previously noted that these calls are made on an individual basis and balance a number of factors. "Each of these evaluations will be holistic and comprehensive in nature, and will account for international human rights standards," the company has stated previously.
Facebook has carried out a crackdown on people falsely claiming Trump won the election, including banning "Stop the Steal" groups that have called into question the legitimacy of the election and have at times called for acts of violence, but it's hard to say if the company would take an equally stern position against Trump. Thus far, Facebook has only labeled his posts with information boxes indicating that his claims are disputed. Perhaps they would take an extra step in removing those posts when he is no longer in office, but it seems like Trump would have to drastically escalate his rhetoric for Facebook to do anything about it.
Trump doesn't use YouTube in the same way he uses Twitter. Much of his account is just clips from press conferences and rallies. It's a far cry from how he once used the platform, vlogging and answering questions from commenters. One has to wonder when Trump no longer holds office and no longer commands the cameras of major news networks every time he speaks if he might return to a platform like YouTube to deliver his messages to his supporters – at least until he can get the rumored Trump-centric news network off the ground.
If Trump does start using YouTube to deliver messages directly to his audience, he might face moderation if he violates the company's rules. "Unlike other platforms, YouTube doesn’t have speaker-based policies. Rather, our policies are content-based," a spokesperson for YouTube tells Mic. "This means videos, comments, channels, and other content are all removed based on what’s said, not who says it."
The spokesperson notes that YouTube has already taken action against videos uploaded to the Donald J. Trump YouTube channel when it found the content violated the company's community guidelines. That included a video on his account that included a clip of Trump saying that children are "almost immune" to coronavirus during an appearance on Fox and Friends on Fox News. YouTube also prevented Trump from running ads on the platform that were not in line with company rules.
Should Trump decide to carry on his crusade claiming that the election was stolen from him, YouTube says it will not allow it to stand unchallenged on its platform. "We are surfacing our election results information panel under videos and above search results about the election, noting that the AP has called the Presidential race for Joe Biden," the company spokesperson says. "This includes under videos discussing the election uploaded by the Donald J. Trump YouTube channel."
It's worth noting that YouTube has been accused of failing to sufficiently enforce its own guidelines at times, including on issues of election results. It has, for instance, failed to remove a video from the Trump-friendly One America News Network account titled "Trump won. MSM [mainstream media] hopes you don’t believe your eyes." The video claims that Trump actually did win the election, says he will serve four more years as president, and calls for investigations into voter fraud. YouTube has held that the video does not violate its election misinformation policy.
Donald Trump doesn't have a TikTok account, which makes sense given the fact that he's attempted to ban the platform entirely. But Trump showed on the campaign trail that he loves dancing, so let's say he decides to embrace TikTok as a private citizen and tries to reach out to his base of supporters and QAnon followers who have taken up residence on the platform.
Should Trump appear on TikTok, he won't receive the protection of being a public figure. A spokesperson for the company tells Mic that "Community guidelines apply to everyone and all content on TikTok." The spokesperson also made clear that TikTok's current policy does not treat speech from elected officials any different than speech from the average user, so even as president, Trump would have to abide by the company's rules or face penalties like suspension or having content taken down.