Suspending Donald Trump from social networks between censorship and responsibility


Institutional Communication Service

12 January 2021

Following the events on Capitol Hill, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram blocked Donald Trump indefinitely. The suspensions reopened the debate on the role and limits of social networks in the United States and most countries. Many wonder whether it is appropriate to talk about censorship or a necessary intervention dictated by responsibility. Three interviews with three USI experts tackle the issue under different perspectives.

The suspension of the President of the United States' social media profiles, Donald Trump, occurred following the assault on the headquarters of the U.S. Congress, which took place on 6 January 2021. Thousands of his supporters stormed inside the seat of Parliament, interrupting the process of certifying the victory in the presidential election of Joe Biden. A protest encouraged by Trump himself right through social platforms, with posts inciting insurrection. Posts that prompted Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to block, first temporarily and then indefinitely, the President's profiles. The ban against Donald Trump has thus stirred an international debate.


"A rightful decision"

Colin Porlezza, Assistant Professor of digital journalism at USI Faculty of Communication Culture and Society, was interviewed by Francesco Pellegrinelli of Corriere del Ticino. In his analysis, he underlines how what happened has highlighted a central aspect: how the big social networks have the tools to intervene, with limitations and control, for example by blocking accounts considered problematic and not in line with the codes of conduct of the platforms. This confirms that, in spite of what social networks may claim about their neutrality, they are in fact publishers, with the relative responsibility for the content they help to disseminate.

According to Porlezza, it is not accurate to speak of censorship, since it is not an act of control performed by a State or a Government. Instead, it is necessary to remember the nature of social networks, which are private platforms with their own rules and policies that forbid, for example, incitement and fomenting violence; rules that Donald Trump has repeatedly violated.

Underlying the decision to suspend the outgoing American President's account is also the concept of public safety, which has clearly shown a responsibility borne by social platforms that, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, can amplify messages and information of any kind.

Read the article on Corriere del Ticino


"A breakthrough, though legally problematic"

In recent days, the debate on digital freedom has been fuelled by Twitter's decision to shut down profiles linked to the so-called far-right QAnon. To date, the blocked accounts are 70,000. Also taking action was the online retail giant, Amazon, which disabled its servers that hosted Parler, a social platform popular among American right-wingers.

Interviewed by the RSI news Bertil Cottier, Professor of Law at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, described Twitter's actions as a turning point. However, they might raise some legal issues since they can be considered "private censorship". Professor Cottier points out that censorship cases are usually handled in court, with the possibility for those accused to defend themselves. At a legislative level, the solution would be to frame better the role and the monopoly exercised by social networks in communication to gain greater security from a legal point of view.

Click here for the full interview (in Italian).


"Beware of adopting policies that can become harmful"

In a commentary published on Corriere del Ticino, Giovanni Barone Adesi, Professor of Financial Theory at USI Faculty of Economics, suggests studying the reasons for Trump's media blackout by detaching ourselves from the events of the last few weeks. "To avoid that the decisions taken under the pressure of a crisis lead to the adoption of policies that are harmful to the plurality of information in the future". Thus, it is necessary to analyse social media's role in society, steering clear from analogies with traditional media.

According to Professor Barone Adesi, it is necessary to ask ourselves how to filter the information of dubious reliability to which we are subjected and, above all, to evaluate how to manage communication through new media, without undermining the plurality of which democracies are nourished and without universalism of thought. A task that promises to be complex, given that both the exercise of control policies and self-regulation reliance have their limits and contradictions.

Click here for the full commentary (available in Italian).


"The public role of social media and the economic advantage of Trump's ban"

Also concerning the ban of Donald Trump's accounts, Lorenzo Cantoni, Professor at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, spoke as a guest during the show Radar aired on Teleticino.

According to Professor Cantoni, the decision to silence the President of the United States has made it clear how social networks are private companies and how, as such, they act. It should not be forgotten that over the years, social platforms have been invested with what Cantoni defines a true "public role" while remaining private companies. They are also very powerful and wealthy. In this context, it is therefore necessary to acknowledge the new role of these socials, and work to find a suitable legal framework.

Another aspect to be taken into consideration is how Twitter has gained an enormous economic advantage from Donald Trump's ban, given the media resonance that this measure has generated; without forgetting that Trump himself has been one of the major financiers of the platform, through the monetisation that the social network imposes on the traffic of information on its channel.

The interview (in Italian) is available at this link