The attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 stunned the world and initiated debate on the parameters of free speech and the politicisation of social media. Although there were clearly many issues at play on that day, former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment inquiry and trial pointed to his activity online and the speech he made that day as incitement of the events that followed.
It has been reported that many who participated in the insurrection did so in a kind of social-media-induced haze where they believed they were following Trump’s orders and were out of touch with the realities of the criminal acts being committed. Social media provides a partisan and ideological echo chamber to its users meaning people find their beliefs constantly corroborated, even as they become more extreme. In circumstances where the perpetuation of disinformation online is internationally unregulated, was seeking impeachment of Trump the appropriate response to these events?
Further, when faced with the political realities of how hard it would be to secure a conviction of Trump at the Republican-held Senate, a fair consideration would be whether seeking the impeachment of Trump was worth it, as well as whether it was appropriate, in these circumstances and if his acquittal was inevitable.
One of the predominant features of events leading up to the attack on the US Capitol was that Trump was tweeting prolifically, as was customary for him; encouraging his followers to attend the ‘Save America’ rally that he spoke at prior to the insurrection. This is, of course, the speech and online activity that many have pointed to as Trump’s involvement in and incitement of the attempted coup that followed. Trump told his followers that the rally would be ‘wild’, that they needed to ‘fight’ for the already lost election and, if they did not, they ‘won’t have a Republican Party anymore’. Disinformation online is rife and studies suggest that disinformation may travel six times faster online, and is engaged with more heavily, than the truth . There is a clear danger that the internet poses an opportunity to spread falsehoods with rapidity but recent events have also shown it can be a tool for political leaders, or aspiring leaders, to undermine democracy. This is not isolated to Trump’s prevalence on Twitter potentially inciting violence; for example, social media was used as a weapon against democracy during the Myanmar coup and the ongoing situation has led Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military and its affiliates from the platform.
This prompts the question that if the internet, and social media companies specifically, provide an echo chamber for these kinds of attacks, was this latest attempt to impeach Trump an appropriate method of dealing with the problem when social media companies exist in a state of self-regulation? It remains unclear what the role of government versus self-regulation will be for these companies. There is clearly a reason to fear for freedom of speech globally if governments impose regulation on the online world, but equally self-regulation by individual companies poses the possibility of free speech online being controlled, and arguably editorialised, by a handful of companies that already hold so much power.
To return to the example of Trump on Twitter, although many viewed his permanent ban from the platform as a Big Tech company finally stepping up and blocking disseminators of disinformation, the reality of a democratically elected leader being silenced by a private company brings up further issues. Although there is, of course, no right to exist on a platform if you do not follow their rules, it appears that social media companies are having their cake and eating it too: these companies currently avoid liability as publishers for the views purveyed on their platforms and yet they are moving closer to editing the material in question when certain posts are ‘hidden’ by the platforms or permanently removed. By moderating and removing content, the platforms are assuming an editorial role in a similar way to a newspaper. As social media companies are beginning to act more like publishers, an expectation of regulation will likely emerge.
In the US, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act largely provides online platforms with immunity from liability arising out of content produced by their users and this concept is reflected in Europe under section 14 of the European Union’s e-Commerce directive. However, already in the UK changes are happening: the new Online Harms Bill is scheduled to come into force later this year and will introduce a duty of care for online platforms to protect their users from harmful and illegal content. Ofcom has been confirmed as the regulator by the bill and many are concerned that internet activity falling under the remit of a quasi-governmental regulator will introduce an element of censorship online, especially when the definition of what constitutes ‘harmful’ content is so nebulous. It is not yet clear whether this approach will appropriately balance the right to free speech online with the regulation that many feel the industry requires but it is likely that similar regulation will be introduced internationally, in particular where President Biden has previously criticised section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
When considering the impracticalities of this latest impeachment and its possible inappropriateness, it is tempting to forget the nature of the events of 6 January. However, these were widely considered to be so appalling and so outside the bounds of behaviour in a solid democracy that the concerns surrounding the practicalities of impeachment might be outweighed by the consideration of what kind of message would be conveyed to the world if impeachment was not sought. The extraordinary nature of the attack on the Capitol, which has been categorised by some political scientists as a self-coup and an ‘attempted dissident coup’,  was seen as something that could not be left to stand in America.
America operates in many ways as a standard setter for democracies across the globe. One clear illustration of this is the phrase ‘fake news’ which has now been translated and used as a means to undermine the press globally. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses this phrase and, more recently, suggested his rival Benny Gantz is trying to ‘steal’ the current election in Israel in a clear imitation of Trump’s ‘stop the steal’ message. Leaders such as Netanyahu may be emboldened to use these phrases because they have been endorsed by an American president. The events of 6 January suggested that democracies can be bent by a show of force, or ‘fight’, and this message played out on the global stage. America’s response to the events of 6 January sends an equally important message. Although it is tempting to suggest that it would have been preferable to move on, and clearly with the role of social media there are other issues at play here, it is also politically paramount to show that there are consequences for mounting an attack on democracy.
 A 2018 study by three MIT scholars found that false news travels six times faster on Twitter than real news does. Not only does the information travel more quickly, it is also engaged with more regularly with false news stories being 70% more likely to be retweeted than true news stories. See here: https://news.mit.edu/2018/study-twitter-false-news-travels-faster-true-stories-0308
 The insurrection was categorised as an ‘attempted dissident coup’ by the Coup D’état Project, of the University of Illinois’s Cline Center.
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