The rise of ‘deplatform’

Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news.

AFTER THE RIOTS at the Capitol last month, Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in The Atlantic that social media had no choice but to suspend Donald Trump’s accounts. “Though they hesitated to moderate or deplatform Trump for much of his presidency, he’s pushed them to somewhat pointed action in the past several months,” Tiffany wrote. She also linked to an October 2020 article of hers, though that previous article did not use the word “deplatform,” which had not yet gained traction outside of social media. 

Trump’s banishment from social media, however, led to an explosion of uses of “deplatform,” a verb meaning to deny someone the ability to post on social media. Already this year, according to a worldwide English-language Nexis search, “deplatform” has appeared in more than three hundred news stories—a total that exceeds those of the preceding three years combined, and suggests that “deplatform” is here to stay. Even the New York Times has used it at least a dozen times this year. So far. 

While it’s not an easy journey to the verb “deplatform,” it’s a direct one. First, you have to think of social media as a “platform” from which to air your opinions. Verb that noun, and you “platform” your opinions. Then simply add the prefix “de-,” meaning to reverse or do the opposite, and voilà. You have “deplatform.” 

Oxford Dictionaries is one of the few with an entry for “deplatform”: “Prevent (a person holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive) from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by blocking them on a particular website.” And, of course, there is a Wikipedia entry, created in April 2019; for a year before that, the page had redirected to “No Platform,” a policy established by the British National Union of Students around 1973 to deny controversial speakers the “platform” to speak on campus.

Urban Dictionary, which is frequently NSFW, has a 2018 entry for “deplatformed,” with a slightly different meaning: “To disinvite a speaker from an event, usually at a college or university campus, due to controversy surrounding their views.” (One from this year, with a Trump reference, spells it “de-platformed.”)

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Most dictionaries list “platform” only as a noun, so people who hate making verbs out of nouns probably already hate “deplatform.” But “platform” has been a verb since 1578, the Oxford English Dictionary says, to mean “To provide with or stand on a platform.” Another version of that definition, “To speak about (an issue, etc.) on a public platform; to set out as part of a political platform, to campaign for,” showed up in 1871, the OED says; another meaning, “To show and market (a film) initially in a small number of cinemas, before distributing it more widely,” appeared in 1980. Most of these verbs, like the modern one, are transitive, meaning they need an object to perform upon.

On Twitter, not surprisingly, “deplatform” has had a longer life. The first usage we can find relating to denying someone the “platform” of Twitter was 2014, when someone tweeted: “Folks, when you retweet an attack, rape or murder, remember: humanise the victim, deplatform the attacker. Don’t celebrate evil accidentally.” The usage picked up significantly in 2015.

So far, “deplatform” is reserved mostly for social media accounts. It could, however, be only a matter of time before people “deplatform” as they “detrain.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.