What precedent does the Trump Twitter ban set?

I don’t know if anybody needs me to tell them this, but Trump has recently been permanently banned from Twitter, following a violent attack on the capitol inspired by his conduct since his election loss. This decision by Twitter has inspired a lot of discussion about free speech and censorship, and I want to chime in with one small point about a common argument you hear in these discussions.

A lot of the anti-ban discussion that I’ve seen relates to fears about setting a bad precedent for future decisions by tech companies. I think that these are legitimate concerns, but that they are often stated over-confidently. When trying to judge the precedent that an action sets, there’s a type of scope ambiguity that arises. What exactly is the precedent that Twitter’s ban of Trump sets? Is it that any time social media authorities find somebody’s ideas repugnant enough they will ban them? That’s probably too broad, but somebody that thinks that this is the precedent will find it overly subjective and judge it to be overreach. Is the precedent that Twitter will ban the President of the United States if his conduct leads to an assault on the Capitol? That’s probably too narrow, but might be a standard we find acceptable.

Sometimes there’s less ambiguity, like when the action fits nicely within a predetermined paradigm for precedent-breaking (e.g., perhaps making a new amendment to the Constitution), and other times there’s more ambiguity. Sometimes actions come with a detailed description of why they’re being taken, and this can be some guide to what precedent we consider the action to be setting. But other times they don’t, and even in those cases that they do we might have reasons to distrust the description, or to think the precedent being set is actually different from the description.

I guess we could say: there’s the intent in the mind of the Twitter authorities, and there’s their actual statement of the reasons for the action. There’s the explicit policy they are citing for their action (in other cases, they might be creating a new policy), and there’s the way that that action is understood among the general public. What we really care about is the likely future consequences of the act, and all of these things are relevant to judging this to one degree or another. Framing it this way, it’s a very complicated prediction about the world that one makes when they say that the Trump Twitter ban is setting a bad precedent: it’s saying that the future actions of Twitter and other tech companies are worse than they would have been in the counterfactual world where they had held off on the ban. This is a claim I have a lot of uncertainty about, and I think probably most other people should as well.

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