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Tech Companies Crack Down On President Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump can no longer post messages to Twitter or Facebook. The social media giants have banned him, worried that he could stir up more violence around the country. Trump has reacted by saying he will go elsewhere. But late yesterday, tech companies made it virtually impossible for an alternative popular with Trump supporters to continue to operate.

NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn is with us now to tell us more. Bobby, thanks for joining us.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Of course.

MARTIN: As we know, President Trump has used social media as his megaphone throughout his presidency, particularly Twitter. How significant is it that Twitter kicked him off the platform?

ALLYN: You know, Michel, it's really a watershed moment in the tech world. And to be fair, civil rights groups and disinformation researchers have for years been calling on Twitter to do more to rein Trump in. I mean, he's really had this outsized role in polluting the Internet with falsehoods and misleading claims. But it took a violent insurrection attempt on the nation's capital before Twitter said, OK, enough.

Now, inside Twitter, there's really been this heated debate about the balancing act between censoring the president of the United States and owning up to enabling violence when the president is responsible for it. So now we have Congress, as we just heard Sue talk about, grappling with whether to impeach Trump over this, law enforcement investigating the incident, and now tech companies responding.

Joan Donovan is an expert on online extremism at Harvard.

JOAN DONOVAN: The reason why we're experiencing this corporate denial of service is because there are really no other levers possible to stop this group of people from reassembling and either trying this again or trying something else that's just as dangerous.

MARTIN: Well, you know, Bobby, as I think everybody knows by now, Trump and his allies say Twitter silencing him is an infringement of free speech. Is there anything to this argument?

ALLYN: Legally, no. By law, the platforms have complete discretion over what's allowed on their sites. Look; they're private companies, and private companies have rules. But Twitter has become a public town square. And Trump and his supporters, like you said, say Twitter is muzzling him and robbing him of his free speech. And even the ACLU put out a statement saying it should concern us when tech companies de-platform influential speakers only when they're losing power.

MARTIN: Well, tell us about this alternative social media app, Parler, which looks a lot like Twitter. But as I understand it, it promises to take the lightest hand when it comes to free speech.

ALLYN: That's right. Yeah, so Parler has become this go-to app for Trump supporters ever since Twitter and Facebook began its crackdown. And on Friday, when Twitter banned Trump, a lot of his supporters say, hey, come on over to Parler. Then Apple and Google made it impossible to download the app on smartphones. And just yesterday, Amazon joined in the crackdown. They announced that it wouldn't host the site anymore starting midnight tonight through its Amazon Web Services. Harvard's Donovan told me that more and more pressure is going to be not just focused on the social media companies, but also on the Web service providers.

DONOVAN: It's going to be really important that when they make these decisions, they stick and that they don't walk them back once the heat is off.

ALLYN: Yeah. So - and Parler's CEO says, you know, he is scrambling to come up with another way to keep its site alive. But, you know, Michel, big picture - if Parler is crippled, there are a bunch of other smaller sites that cater to right-wing provocateurs. And one of those may very well be, you know, the site where Trump supporters plan their next mass gathering.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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