On Sunday, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel sent employees an unusually personal note reflecting on the events of the past several weeks
. Many brands took the occasion of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, and the global protests that have followed, to signal their solidarity with the black community and their allies. But few CEOs took the step, as Spiegel did, of reflecting on his own privilege — and then calling for reparations for black folks. (He threw in a cogent analysis of the federal budget, too.)
Spiegel’s memo, which Snap later made public, also came as the big social companies were reckoning over what to do about President Donald Trump’s increasingly bellicose posts about voting by mail and peaceful protesters. Twitter moved to add labels to one set of tweets
and hid others behind a warning for “glorifying violence”; Facebook agonized
but ultimately decided to take no action, triggering a virtual walkout
of hundreds of employees earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Snap entered that fray, announcing that it would stop promoting Trump’s account in its Discover section. I wrote about it at The Verge
President Trump’s verified Snapchat account will no longer be promoted within the app after executives concluded that his tweets over the weekend promoted violence, the company said today. His account, RealDonaldTrump, will remain on the platform and continue to appear on search results. But he will no longer appear in the app’s Discover tab, which promotes news publishers, elected officials, celebrities, and influencers.
“We are not currently promoting the president’s content on Snapchat’s Discover platform,” the company said in a statement. “We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover. Racial violence and injustice have no place in our society and we stand together with all who seek peace, love, equality, and justice in America.”
The company told me it made the decision over the weekend after being taken aback by several of Trump tweets, notably one promising that protesters
would be “greeted with the most vicious dogs and ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
Spiegel didn’t comment on the decision, but his PR team pointed to this passage from his Sunday memo:
“As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat.”
One of the core issues this newsletter has explored over the past couple years is the difference between, in the technologist Aza Raskin’s memorable phrase, freedom of speech and freedom of reach. Questions about controversial posts often come down to a binary decision: take it down, or leave it up? In that system, everything really is a question of free speech. You either have access to the platform or you don’t.
Freedom of reach poses a different set of questions for platform policy teams and executives to think through. It asks in what ways a product can be exploited, wittingly or unwittingly, to recruit new followers for a person or an ideology — and whether the company feels comfortable with granting an account those privileges.
To be clear, Trump has long benefited from the fact that platforms have generally decided freedom-of-reach questions in his favor. Sometimes this has been a manual decision, as when Twitter kept Trump on its suggested user list despite his promotion of the racist Obama birther conspiracy theory
. And sometimes it’s algorithmic, as when Facebook sorts a Trump post about vicious dogs into your feed because it predicts that you are likely to engage with it.
Snap’s decision to remove Trump from promotion comes just as the account was beginning to blow up. Bloomberg reported last month that Trump’s Snapchat following had tripled in eight months, to more than 1.5 million. That’s not much compared to Trump’s 81 million Twitter followers, or his 29 million Facebook followers. But the Trump campaign loves the platform for the way it lets them reach Generation Z. Here’s Sarah Frier in Bloomberg
Snapchat befuddles older generations, so it’s not as effective for amassing political donations. The biggest benefit, according to the Trump campaign, is the chance to reach the app’s general audience. On Twitter and Facebook, the campaign depends on users sharing political messages to reach more people. On Snapchat, if they post popular content frequently enough, it will appear on the Discover page where many of the app’s 229 million daily users go to watch videos and other content.
Snap isn’t deleting Trump’s account, and he is free to keep posting to existing followers. But to the extent that his Snapchat account grows in the future, it will be without Snap’s help. In Raskin’s terms, the company has preserved Trump’s speech while making him responsible for finding his own reach.
Freedom of reach is arguably the question this year for platforms reckoning with their potential culpability in the erosion of democratic norms and the promotion of state violence. It’s what separates them from normal publishers, to which they are constantly comparing themselves. In the aftermath of the Trump-Twitter story last week, I heard from a lot of tech workers asking why, if the president’s tweets were so bad, newspapers and cable news outlets were still hosting and discussing them.
Certainly there are good questions about what the news media chooses to amplify
. What the president does will almost always be news, even when it’s ugly, and Trump has exploited that fact to great advantage. At the same time, good publishers surround the president’s words with additional context, history, and rebuttals. Social platforms, for better and for worse, offer only the president’s words. Whether a user sees any of the relevant context or fact-checking is too often a matter of algorithmic chance.
I can’t see a good reason, in most cases, for a big social network to deny the president his right to speak. (Given the likelihood of him simply going to post elsewhere, and bots immediately re-posting his thoughts to the networks where he has been banned under different account names, I doubt you even could.) But I can
see a reason for product teams to decline to help him build his megaphone. The Trump administration has argued in court that doctors should be able to deny patients life-saving medical care if it violates their conscience
. If Trump’s tweets shock the conscience of a tech employee, why shouldn’t they be able to refuse to help him get more followers?
Snapchat is trying to rig the 2020 election, illegally using their corporate funding to promote Joe Biden and suppress President Trump. Radical Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel would rather promote extreme left riot videos and encourage their users to destroy America than share the positive words of unity, justice, and law and order from our President.
I don’t know when Republicans decided that using corporate funding to intervene in politics was illegal
; we’ll see if that makes it into their 2020 platform. In the meantime, Snap has neatly sidestepped questions of censorship by not censoring the president at all. Instead the company has said that if you want to see the president’s snaps, you’ll have to go look for them on your own time.
On Snapchat, as everywhere else, Trump still has the right to speak. Today we were reminded that Evan Spiegel does, too.