Understanding Twitter suspensions and the need for consistent policies

January 9, 2021

On Friday evening, Twitter officially suspended the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, from its platform for violating its stated community policies related to inciting violence and spreading false information. This suspension comes after the heinous attack on the United States Capitol on Wednesday, inspired by the president and his key supporters, following a rally on the National Mall. The protest, which culminated in both violence and rioting, was organized in response to the congressional certification of the results of the 2020 presidential election also taking place on Wednesday. 

According to the Associated Press, “Twitter has long given Trump and other world leaders broad exemptions from its rules against personal attacks, hate speech and other behaviors.” But since the election in November 2020, many of the president’s tweets were labeled for promoting conspiracy theories alleging election fraud and the stealing of votes as well as encouraging violence. Twitter utilized these warning and fact check labels to inform the public of the potential misinformation, while the content remained available online due to the compelling public interest of having direct access to communication from the president of the United States. 

But as the Capitol Police and National Guard were clearing the building after the insurrection was quelled, Twitter disabled the president’s account temporarily and deleted certain tweets deemed as encouraging further violence. The temporary suspension also came with a warning that continued violation of Twitter’s policies may lead to a permanent ban from the platform. The account was reenabled on Thursday, Jan. 7. But due to continued policy violations by the president, his account @RealDonaldTrump was permanently suspended on Friday night. 

Community policies and compelling interest

Many prominent technology critics including a number of lawmakers, press, and public figures have called for social media platforms to take a firmer stance with the president concerning his violations of their stated content policies for users. But until recently, Twitter and other social media platforms, such as Facebook, allowed the president to continue posting due to the compelling public interest surrounding his speech given the gravity and responsibilities of the Oval Office. Yet after continued violations of these policies, which this week stoked violence and an attempted coup, Twitter took the unprecedented step of permanently suspending the president’s personal account. It should be noted that this official suspension only applies to @RealDonaldTrump, and not to official White House accounts such as @POTUS, @WhiteHouse, and other U.S. government accounts. However, because Twitter does not allow users with banned accounts to operate alternate accounts, some tweets have already been removed from @POTUS after the president chose to post to that account following his suspension.

Many have questioned the wisdom and timing of this suspension, as well as the potential fallout of such a monumental decision to suspend the sitting president of the United States. Much of the concern lies in the fact that these social media platforms have become ubiquitous in our society. In our digital age, social media sites now represent a primary vehicle of communication. Twitter serves as a news platform for many users and is a significant conduit of real-time information, including news and reporting about the very events that led to this moment.

Each social media platform has its own set of community standards, policies, or rules to govern user activity. Twitter for example allows pornography on its platform, while Facebook and Instagram ban nudity. Other platforms, such as Parler, market themselves as free speech alternatives and have very loose or even nonexistent content moderation policies. The implementation of community policies and content moderation is actually encouraged by Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act, which was a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to promote the growth of the fledgling internet in the mid-1990s. Section 230 gives internet companies a liability shield for online user content—meaning users and not the platforms themselves are responsible for the content of posts—-in exchange for enacting “good faith” measures to remove objectionable content in order to make the internet a safer place for our society.

Free speech and content moderation

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech for all people. But it only protects citizens from interference by the government. The First Amendment’s free speech protection does not apply to the actions of a third party such as a private social media company governing certain speech. A helpful way to think about these issues is to compare them to the many religious liberty cases litigated in recent years, including Baronelle Stutzman (a florist) and Jack Phillips (a baker) who were taken to court based upon their refusal to render speech or use their creative gifts in ways that violated their consciences. These cases involved the government taking action to override the civil liberties of these individuals, compelling them to violate their deeply held religious beliefs or face civil penalties.

In these cases, the ERLC argued that the government did not have a compelling interest to violate their First Amendment freedoms by forcing them to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. The key to these cases is the idea of a compelling interest, which also ties into the issues of content moderation with social media.

Content moderation online is an admittedly difficult and thorny ethical issue. And this is because of the ways that social media has become such a massive and integral part of our society, not to mention the hyper politicization of such issues. An internet or social media platform without any type of moderation or rules would quickly devolve into a dangerous environment filled with misinformation, and interminable unfiltered or illegal content. Even with such rules, it is undeniable that social media has been utilized in ways leading to real world harm

In the case of this particular suspension, a line was crossed when the president knowingly endangered members of the public as well as law enforcement and elected officials by inciting physical violence and destruction. In response, Twitter determined that the potential threat of further violence and physical harm overrides the compelling public interest by which they previously justified allowing the president’s account to remain active and his posted content to remain online even in violation of its policies. And though this was a significant action—the president’s speech is of great importance—it was not a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.

Slippery slope?

As news of this monumental suspension broke, many rightfully questioned how this type of action by a social media giant could or would be used against views that are outside of the mainstream such as those by conservative Christians. This is an understandable concern based on the unequal and often controversial application of content moderation by the platforms. Undoubtedly, action of this kind opens the door for further censorship. But even so, Twitter’s actions must be seen in light of the full picture. Throughout his term, the company had extended significant latitude to the president despite the regular posting of false, misleading, and potentially threatening and dangerous information. But after the grievous display of brutality and loss of life at the United States Capitol—where five people died including one Capitol Hill police officer—public interest gave way to grave public safety concerns.

Still, among the most alarming elements of this suspension is not the suspension itself, but the inconsistency of Twitter’s policy enforcement across the board. While the company is well within its rights to enforce suspensions due to policy violations, Twitter has also allowed posts from accounts representing authoritarian leaders around the world, such as from Chinese and Iranian governments, that clearly violate the same policies used to ban the president’s account. These oppressive and authoritarian regimes promoted by these accounts incite and perpetrate devastating violence and human rights abuses beyond anything we’ve witnessed firsthand in the United States. 

In China, over one million Uighur Muslims have been detained, persecuted, and even sterilized in “reeducation camps.” But social media platforms like Twitter often turned a blind eye to these atrocities. Deceptive tweets from Chinese officials often do not even carry a label of danger, or even misinformation, yet nearly every tweet by President Trump has been marked by such since the election in November. (It is worth noting that Twitter did act to remove certain content from foreign leaders following the announcement about its permanent ban of the President.)

However reasonable or necessary Twitter’s decision in this particular instance might be, its inconsistency in content moderation is harmful to our social fabric, which is sustained by ideals like trust and equality. It is impossible to gain public trust by overlooking such egregious violations, even if the company has the right to enforce its rules as it sees fit. 

Moral courage and responsibility require the equal application and enforcement of stated policies. Taking difficult but necessary action is only meaningful if such actions are carried out consistently. If administrators at Twitter felt compelled to curtail the President’s speech in the name of public safety, it is only right that they follow suit by banning the accounts of other known offenders, including officials within the Chinese Communist Party—the single greatest human rights abusers on the planet.

Christians are wise to be vigilant about matters related to censorship. But it is important to recognize that the difference between censoring speech that is disagreeable and limiting speech that threatens or elicits physical harm. Going forward, careful attention should be paid to the actions of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook regarding content moderation and censorship, but in itself, Twitter’s decision to ban the President’s account should not be seen as an existential threat to free speech in our democracy.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24