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Social Media Companies Are Banning Trump. Why Now?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Big Tech is also getting involved in the reckoning over the assault on Congress. It's not only Twitter that deplatformed the president, cutting him off from some 88 million followers. Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit and even Pinterest suspended Donald Trump's presence indefinitely. And on Saturday, Amazon booted Parler, a popular social media platform for the far right, off its web hosting service. And Apple removed it off its App Store. They all say President Trump's online rhetoric incited the kind of violence we saw on January 6. Jennifer Grygiel is an assistant professor specializing in social media at Syracuse University. We've reached them in New York. Welcome to the program.

JENNIFER GRYGIEL: Hi. Nice to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a deeply divisive move we're seeing - your reaction to what's happening.

GRYGIEL: Well, it really highlights the complexity of the media ecosystem. There's lots of interconnected parts in the technology world and the social media world that helps an app come to market. So I think everyone's trying to piece this together. The companies are starting to understand that Parler and other apps have not done enough to make sure that they are essentially not dangerous products. And they're seeking to make sure that they are not contributing to harm that has taken place here to the American democracy but also the public safety at this point after what we saw on the Capitol.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why didn't they react sooner, do you think? I mean, are they just positioning themselves to deal with a new administration, or is this something else?

GRYGIEL: I think that this is a reckoning that's come when it comes to social media. First, it was like, what are these things? And there isn't a lot of regulation in this space. So we have a couple of laws that allow, essentially, platforms to moderate their content but also nothing really properly motivating them to make sure that they do it fast enough or that they run these companies in ways that are safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about Parler in particular briefly because I think people might be surprised to learn that Amazon has the power to shut down a site it doesn't own. Can you explain briefly?

GRYGIEL: Well, they're not shutting it down, per se. They are making sure that, you know, they don't support and essentially provide the infrastructure to a company that is dangerous at this point. Parler is still able to set up their company and to run it. They just need to do it more independently. And these companies have decided they don't want to support this and be a part of it, and that's their right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you bring up, I think, the essential point about all this, which is that there is a great debate about what exactly social media is. President Trump and his supporters say that these bans and suspensions amount to a violation of their freedom of speech. We know that free speech has its limits when it comes to fomenting violence, and we also know that private companies aren't covered by the First Amendment. But do you foresee legal challenges to these decisions that might have some traction?

GRYGIEL: The president has done a good job of confusing everybody and making this a free speech issue, but when it comes to him specifically, he's the government. He's an elected official. And unfortunately, the president has been systematically pushing out propaganda and circumventing the free press for years by using social media. And who says the president needed to tweet? You know, I said that a few days ago, too. And guess what? Now he's not even able to tweet. So obviously, it's not something that's fundamental, right? Like, we now have a president that doesn't tweet. This is all cultural. And we really need our, you know, government to evaluate how the federal government itself is able to use social media in the interest of, you know, public safety, to make sure that the American people are never propagandized by any president - Trump or in the incoming Biden administration or in the future. This is just a very terrible situation, what happened on the Capitol. And we need social media to be regulated in a safe space.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jennifer Grygiel is assistant professor specializing in social media at Syracuse University. Thank you very much.

GRYGIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.