What businesses can learn from Trump’s social media ban
The president can no longer tweet. By itself, that’s not a big deal, but it signals the power brands can wield — and have stripped away — online.
In what is largely an unprecedented move, social media platforms almost universally banned President Donald Trump from their services over the last several days, following an act of domestic terrorism on the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 by pro-Trump rioters who were stoked by the president’s rhetoric.
To date, the platforms that have banned or restricted Trump so far include:
- Amazon AWS
It’s a surprising move on a number of fronts. First, that a sitting U.S. president, albeit one with just days remaining before he’s out of office, still has access to the country’s nuclear codes yet can’t tweet seems almost laughable. Second, and perhaps most surprising of all, is that social media companies, typically reluctant to shut down even the most dangerous users, made these moves at all. It speaks to just how grave the situation has become with the president and some of his supporters, and portends an extreme case of the repercussions brands — and Trump is most definitely a carefully crafted, though outwardly haphazard, brand — could face moving forward if their social media messaging isn’t managed properly.
According to Steve Noll, Madison College marketing and social media instructor, social media companies have long been naive in their approach to users. “They have believed that given a choice, people would choose to do the right thing with their platform,” he explains. “This has finally shown itself to be false.
“Unfortunately, there’s been too many issues, like cyberbullying and live streaming terrorist attacks, to just ignore this,” Noll continues. “But the tech companies also have been in a tough position of trying to remain politically neutral to user’s opinions that a groundwork of responsibility was still being figured out. Social media technically is a medium that’s still young and growing up.”
Noll says social media’s strength has always been the ability to communicate through interest and not be geographically locked. While this gives people endless opportunities to connect with others of similar interest, it also pushes people to live in thought-bubbles.
“So, the core strength of their business model has become a core problem,” notes Noll. “Unfortunately, this is the basis of the medium. And its meteoric rise in users — billions of people all over the world — has meant that it’s simply not possible to watch for all hate speech. Even the best AI computers haven’t been able to catch up with trillions of messages being posted, and even then, the need to understand the intent behind the post.”
Noll points specifically to how the same post can have different meanings. If someone posts “I had a sick experience at a restaurant,” does that mean they are using the work “sick” as meaning “cool” or does it mean something we’d rather not describe? “Social media is way too popular to keep an eye on everything,” says Noll. “It’s really the Wild West with technology.”
Of course, now that social media companies are trying to bring some laws to a somewhat lawless online landscape, detractors have arisen following first the decision in 2020 by some social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to begin labeling some of the president’s messages as containing unsubstantiated or outright false claims and most recently the wider move to ban Trump. These voices claim the companies have overreached and should not have the power to silence voices they disagree with. It’s an assertion Noll finds hypocritical.
“Users must agree to terms when they sign up,” says Noll. “However, the vast majority don’t read these and just tick the box and start scrolling. It’s really the fault of the user if they violate the terms they agreed to. So yes, businesses are totally justified legally to remove them from their platform, and given the weaponizing of social media and now what it’s led to, I think tech companies are much more justified with being more restrictive.
“There’s also some precedent here from people who see this as unfair,” continues Noll. “For a decade, there’s been the discussion that bakers and florists can refuse to do business with gay people and their view is that a company has the right to pick and choose who they work with. Those who have supported this view are going to have a hard time justifying it [when it’s] being used on them now.”
Trump may be the president but he’s also a business, with his name splashed across multiple properties and enterprises in the U.S. and across the globe. He has his brand loyalists to be sure, but the broader public backlash to what he stands for hit a fever pitch with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, which resulted in damage and destruction to a U.S. monument and the deaths of five people, one of them a Capitol police officer, as well as the death by suicide in the days after the attack by another Capitol police officer who was on duty at the Capitol when the attack occurred.
The lesson for other businesses and business leaders, according to Noll, should be obvious — think before you type.
“Like him or not, [Trump] was brilliant in understanding the true power that social media wields,” explains Noll. “Very few people have really seen the power potential that the medium offers. While the Kardashians have leveraged it for a billion-dollar brand, Trump’s ultimate weakness was his unchecked ego.
“Social media has always struggled in business to get the respect — and budget — it deserves. Too often, managing it is left to overworked marketing people with many other responsibilities, and only now are companies realizing the opportunity of investing in social media and its potential ROI. But it can’t be left unchecked to only one person. It’s a powerful tool, and that power and reach leads to ethical decisions.
“With Trump, he let it go to his head, and now only he bears the responsibility of his actions,” concludes Noll. “Business should learn from this and invest in educated employees who are dedicated to building a strong, brand-centered social media presence. The potentials are limitless for a business, but this must be a team effort and not just part of a leftover marketing budget.”
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