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OPINION

Speech has consequences

As leaders are realizing in the wake of the Capitol attack, words have consequences. Even tweeted words.

President Donald Trump looks at his phone in a June 2020 meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Twitter banned his account, citing a "risk of further incitement of violence," following the attack on the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
President Donald Trump looks at his phone in a June 2020 meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Twitter banned his account, citing a "risk of further incitement of violence," following the attack on the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

In the aftermath of the pro-Trump attack on the Capitol, elected officials, governmental and law enforcement leaders, and indeed, much of America is still digesting and processing the events that unfolded,

Shocking video continues to emerge, along with first-person accounts of a once-unfathomable attack on our country’s democracy. Investigations have commenced or are about to be undertaken. We should all eagerly await learning more about not just how the attacks unfolded but also the efforts undertaken on the front end to foment unrest and to organize the assault.

But even as that plays itself out, the role of social media platforms both before and after the insurrection has come under a microscope. Twitter, Snapchat, and other social platforms’ ban of President Trump, as well as the suspension of the Parler app, were met with cries of censorship and big-corporation totalitarianism. And many of those outcries are wrongly citing the First Amendment, which limits only federal, state, and local governments from infringing on free speech.

It’s true under the First Amendment that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble or to petition the government for a redress of grievances. No one is disputing that.

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What the First Amendment does not allow is the incitement of actions that would harm others. Yet that is exactly what happened last week, in the highest levels of government. The calls for action occurred both in person, at a rally in which Trump incited supporters to storm the Capitol, and in the weeks leading up to the conflict on a multitude of social media platforms. Many of them were perpetuated on Twitter by the president.

As soon as the assault on the Capitol began hitting its crescendo, the gravity of what many of those carefully worded tweets and public statements meant became clear. And once there was a casualty, photos of zip-tie-carrying terrorists, a noose and gallows outside the Capitol, and the discovery of pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, and firearms, the “harmless” free speech onslaught took on a dramatically new demeanor.

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A noose is seen on makeshift gallows as supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.
A noose is seen on makeshift gallows as supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

For years, Trump used his Twitter account to speak directly to his followers. When the social media giant disabled his account last week, followed quickly by Facebook and other platforms, his critics applauded an action they saw as long overdue. His followers, however, launched predictable talking points about a deprivation of free speechthat they said was a further attack on our democracy. As leaders are realizing in the wake of the attack, words have consequences. Even tweeted words.

Over the past four years, my Boston-based security solutions company has investigated dozens of cases involving threats launched from social media platforms. I have been introduced to vile and threatening statements on mainstream platforms and the right-wing fringe platforms of the dark Web. In many cases, these are death threats, and often racist rants. Others advocate the violent overthrow of the government. Sometimes the chosen words are vague, but most imply the potential for physical violence. Many of these investigations have resulted in criminal charges.

Our investigators have spent decades in law enforcement and have handled hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. The difference is that many of those investigations involved verbal or physical incidents, face to face. Investigations into virtual threats have increased during the Trump administration. These criminals believe they are hiding behind the anonymity of a user name or dummy account to lob their threats or rally their forces. This is an ongoing challenge. Too often my clients hear from security professionals and police that without a death threat there is nothing that can be done. Even when a crime has been committed, cooperation from these faceless corporations is usually only possible under court order.

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These new technologies have eclipsed any meaningful legislative debate or controls. Social media platforms must be regulated so there is accountability for offenders and protections for victims of death threats, revenge porn, libel, and lies. Moreover, tracing criminal conduct to its source must be established. Tracking could be done through regulatory controls requiring platforms immediately identify perpetrators of criminal threats and other crimes. Social media has become a lawless Wild West of criminal conduct. The virtual world matters. Threats, treason, and sedition are not protected speech. We have witnessed what unbridled speech can produce.

Law enforcement, and indeed, our fellow citizens need to continue to monitor these sites for any indications of rising or impending violence. While that occurred in advance of the Capitol attack, it was not acted on. Why? Could it be that the language was emanating from the president’s own accounts and many agencies did not feel able or authorized to disarm weaponized words from within the West Wing? Only clear regulations and statutes allow that level of scrutiny.

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To be clear, this is not innocent rhetoric. Advocating to overthrow our government, and to do so by violent means, is not free speech. If these were threats inciting violence at a local high school, law enforcement would intercede immediately. If threats of violence with firearms appeared on someone’s Facebook or Twitter account, the person who posted the threat should expect a visit from law enforcement.

None of what we are watching now should come as a surprise. The authors of these threats, the insurgents who have wallpapered messages boards and their social media accounts with such incitements, have been telling us all along what they planned to do to our democracy. Congress and social media platforms must show them what they should expect from a nation that is fed up with hateful invectives. We’ve had enough.

Edward F. Davis III is the former Boston Police commissioner and is the owner of the Edward Davis Company.