At several points during Trump’s time in office, critics have called on Twitter to intervene in the president’s habit of provoking and insulting his critics and opponents through tweets. Trump’s use of social media is a stark shift from past administrations, which have carefully constructed, refined, and composed any statements from the president to the public.
With no such fine-tuning and deliberation by staff, Trump’s feed has been an outlet for him to lash out against his critics, goad other leaders, and semi-coherently defend himself from attacks. For Trump, social media has afforded him an unmediated mouthpiece that has often allowed him to define the wider conversation.
So it’s not surprising that there have been calls for Twitter to play an active role. Critics rightly point out that some of his tweets have violated the company’s written terms of service—threats of violence, for example, are enough to ban regular users from the platform.
Twitter has explained why it doesn’t remove newsworthy posts from public figures, making some valuable points about public debate, accessibility, and unintended consequences. But this week, the company suggested that simply leaving the posts up isn’t enough, and said it may start explicitly labeling posts that violate its rules.
Everyone from Kim-Jong Un, to Trump’s own attorney general, to the recently deceased Senator John McCain, to actors like Robert De Niro, to victims of mass shootings, have found themselves in the crosshairs of the president’s tweets.
Trump tweeted last year in response to Iran:
“NEVER EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKE OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
In 2017, he warned:
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
For many, it has seemed like a particularly dangerous double standard to allow Trump to threaten nuclear annihilation, while normal users would face immediate consequences for threatening to punch their neighbor.
Short of nuclear taunts, Trump has also singled out individuals to a degree that many see as bullying or harassment. He called a former aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman, a “dog.” Another tweet described adult film star Stormy Daniels as “Horseface.”
Yet, Twitter says they “prohibit targeted behavior that harasses, threatens, or uses fear to silence others and take action when they violate our policies.”
Shortly after he traded threats with Kim-Jong Un, The Boston Globe wrote:
“If Twitter were a responsible company, it would disable the president’s account to remove that possibility.”
Twitter’s counterargument has been that it sees its role as providing a platform for global, public discourse. Blocking a world leader like Trump “would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.” They noted that while it wouldn’t have any chance of actually silencing leaders, it would silence the debate around those statements.
And it’s a worthwhile point. The consequences of banning or silencing Trump on Twitter would likely outweigh the benefits, particularly now that he has amassed a loyal following and is already in office. Even when he started his campaign he was a well-known public figure with plenty of other ways to get a message out to the public. Such a move would certainly bolster his claims that the press and tech companies are biased against conservative viewpoints.
And indeed, social media provides a new dynamic, in which anyone can respond directly to statements from public figures.
Users that Trump has blocked on Twitter, in response to their criticism, filed a lawsuit saying they had a right to be heard in a public forum on which Trump was making official statements. And while Trump is now appealing the decision, a judge last year agreed that the blocks amounted to a First Amendment violation. And this week judges in federal court seemed to support the argument from the plaintiffs. It appears Trump is unlikely to win the appeal.
One of the plaintiffs explained this week, writing in USA Today, why that access is so important:
“Part of what’s significant about these conversations is how they unfold in real time: Experts interpret policy-specific tweets; former officials comment on process; journalists and researchers contextualize new developments, and so on,” said policy writer Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza. “Today, much of democratic discourse and engagement takes place online. Officials around the country use social media to communicate with constituents. This increase in accessibility is itself democratizing.”
If Twitter banned Trump it would certainly limit that accessibility. So while critics of Twitter are right that Trump’s tweets often violate their terms of service, Twitter is also correct that there would be important and unintended consequences. On Wednesday, a top Twitter official put forward a plan that would carefully address both points—the company is now considering labeling tweets that violate its rules but which remain posted in the interest of public access and debate.
“One of the things we’re working really closely on with our product and engineering folks is, ‘How can we label that?’” Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, policy, and trust and safety said in response to questions from the Washington Post. “How can we put some context around it so people are aware that that content is actually a violation of our rules and it is serving a particular purpose in remaining on the platform?”
These annotations would explain that certain content does indeed violate Twitter policy, but would specify why the company chooses not to remove it. Implementing the policy would make an important point about harmful content, clarify the platform’s rules, and lend a context to threats and harassment that could fuel debate instead of stifling it. Such a plan is an important step toward finding balance in a new, paradigm-shifting platform for public dialogue.