The Republican reaction to Twitter’s decision to permanently ban former President Donald Trump is emblematic of today’s Republican Party: hypocritical and purposefully misleading. Claiming that it’s unconstitutional for Twitter, a private company, to ban Trump from their platform grossly misinterprets what the First Amendment says plainly: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

The key word in the First Amendment that often gets overlooked is Congress. The First Amendment is supposed to protect us — the people — from the government. It is not meant to protect us from the social consequences that may arise because of our speech. It is not possible for private companies to violate the First Amendment. 

Republicans, while claiming to be the party of the Constitution, are lying to the American people — some of whom now believe that a private company is liable under the First Amendment. This goes beyond Twitter banning Trump. 

Simon & Schuster, a publishing company, announced it was canceling Sen. Josh Hawley’s, R-Mo., book publication for his role in the attempt to overturn the election results. Hawley responded by saying that the situation was “a direct assault on the First Amendment.”

Hawley is a constitutional lawyer who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. He knows that a private company cannot “assault” the First Amendment. Hawley, Trump and other Republicans who are well-versed in the true meaning of the First Amendment are exploiting the political polarization of today to give themselves more political power at the expense of the United States and its citizens.

Simon & Schuster and Twitter — as well as the other social media companies that deplatformed Trump — are not government entities, and thus cannot be held accountable under the First Amendment. Trump broke its terms of service, giving Twitter every right to ban him and preventing a viable lawsuit from taking place. Hawley engaged in behavior that Simon & Schuster didn’t want associated with their brand. The Constitution does not guarantee Americans a right to a Twitter account or a book deal. 

Rather than a disagreement over policy or values, American political discourse has transcended to disagreement over fact perpetuated by purposeful lies. Republicans are telling their voters, and all Americans, things that are simply not true. 

The most prominent lie is that President Joe Biden is not the rightful president and that Trump lost due to rampant voter fraud, which led to an insurrection at the Capitol in January and continues to threaten our democracy. One solution is to prevent the spread of this dangerous information through sources that anyone can access, like social media sites. These platforms play a central role in our daily lives, which necessitates their proactivity rather than retroactivity.

Twitter was right to ban Trump. He has been tweeting falsehoods for months, which dramatically increased in number and destructiveness since the election in November — culminating when he was removed from Twitter after the events in January. But while the actions taken by social media companies to ban Trump and purge other misinformation from their sites was the right action to take, it is possible that beginning to take serious action against misinformation in 2021 is too little, too late. 

The repercussions of waiting to curtail the spread of misinformation could have serious consequences all over the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny have both expressed concern about free speech in the wake of a private company banning such a prominent figure in world politics. Their arguments have merit and demonstrate how dangerous it was for tech companies to allow misinformation on their platforms for such long periods of time in the first place. 

There are several actions that the government or the companies themselves can take to show they are trying to prevent lies from being spread on these platforms. People have called for the tech companies to be more transparent in their actions, such as setting up a committee to make decisions about banning users and flagging tweets with clear standards that they adhere to. 

Others, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., want tech companies to be broken up. Another option is to change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a piece of internet legislation that provides protections for “interactive computer services,” saying that they cannot be treated as publishers of third-party content. 

It would be difficult to change the minds of people who firmly believe in the misinformation perpetuated by Trump and the Republican Party. But something can still be done to prevent more people from thinking these lies — or something even worse — are true. 

Twitter banning Trump and taking a more proactive step in combating misinformation on its platform is a first step, but we need more concrete action to be taken — either by these companies themselves, or by the U.S. government.

Lydia Storella can be reached at storella@umich.edu.

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