If there was ever a week that makes the case for and against Twitter, this one was it.
Let’s recap: On Tuesday, President Trump told reporters, in no uncertain terms, that he would take swift action against North Korea, and that any threats involving the country’s considerable nuclear capabilities would be “met with fire and fury.”
In regards to Kim Jong-un, Trump said, “He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
North Korea, in turn, lobbed a threat to attack the U.S. territory of Guam. “Let’s see what he does with Guam,” Trump countered on Thursday.
This is a topic that Trump, as he is wont to do, has previously discussed on his mouthpiece of choice, Twitter—much to the chagrin of North Korea’s leadership. So it follows that this morning, Trump issued yet another threat via Twitter:
Military solutions are now fully in place ,locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2017
I don’t need to explain just how irresponsible it is for Trump to escalate this posturing, and to do so on a public platform like Twitter. As others have written, there’s a case to be made for booting Trump from Twitter, and today’s tweet only cements it.
In fact, by Twitter’s own definition, Trump’s tweets about North Korea might qualify as behavior that incites or promotes violence (albeit not targeted at another Twitter user). From the Twitter Rules:
We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.
Any accounts and related accounts engaging in the activities specified below may be temporarily locked and/or subject to permanent suspension.
- Violent threats (direct or indirect): You may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.
In the past, the targets of Trump’s innumerable Twitter rants have sometimes been private citizens, like union leader Chuck Jones or Lauren Batchelder, a college student who told Trump he wasn’t a “friend to women.” Both were on the receiving end of threats from Trump supporters following his tweets. As New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote back in December, Trump should be no different from any other Twitter user within the context of the platform, which means Twitter technically could revoke his tweeting privileges as it sees fit.
From Manjoo’s column:
As a corporation, Twitter is under no First Amendment obligation to let Mr. Trump use the service. It gets to make its own set of speech rules within its own walls, and among those rules is a prohibition on using the service to incite harassment. Earlier this year, the company suspended several Trump supporters who appeared to run afoul of those rules. Twitter has said that its policies apply to every user.
All this means Twitter could ban Trump. And, not surprisingly, users, including actor and former Obama aide Kal Penn, are campaigning to send complaints to the company over his violent language.
But it’s a catch- 22: If Trump is kicked off Twitter, the company risks being accused of political censorship and violating the “freedom of expression” it claims to hold dear. In allowing Trump unfettered access to its platform, however, Twitter amplifies an account whose content qualifies as abusive behavior under its own rules and, with this week’s activity, could put the U.S. in danger. (If letting Trump tweet means letting him potentially goad volatile dictators into nuking the U.S., I might opt to ban Trump and weather the cries of censorship—but Jack Dorsey I am not.)
One precedent for a Trump ban, if there is one, is the case of former Breitbart editor and alt-right celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos, who was ousted from the service last summer after harassing actress Leslie Jones and encouraging his followers to do the same. It was only after a campaign led by Jones that the company took action, making Milo one of the most prominent figures the service has banned yet (it also suspended other alt-right accounts late last year). Perhaps if a person more popular than Trump were to become the target of his harassment, Twitter might be prompted to change its Trump tune. Keep in mind that Milo’s follower count numbered 388,000 at the time; the President’s personal account currently has 36 million followers.
Twitter’s caution also reflects a tumultuous time in the tech industry, even more so since the election. Witness the response to Google firing James Damore, the employee who wrote the now-infamous memo criticizing the company’s diversity initiatives—and, says Google, perpetuating stereotypes and violating its code of conduct. One of Damore’s claims was that Google’s “left bias” effectively silenced anyone who was ideologically different. Can you imagine the backlash if Twitter banished Trump on similar grounds?
The company’s been around for just over 11 years, and Trump is only the second president to use its service while in office. Chances are, Twitter hasn’t fully thought through what it means for the most powerful person in the country to use its platform, let alone what to do when that person uses Twitter to issue policy announcements and threats to world leaders.
And let’s not forget one thing: However much Trump needs Twitter, Twitter needs Trump. They need the engagement, the user growth—fleeting though it may be—and the cable news airtime. “If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they would say, ‘what a great statement, what a wonderful statement,'” Trump told reporters on Friday, responding to criticism about his North Korean rhetoric. Perhaps? But Trump isn’t just somebody else. And he’s certainly not just any Twitter user either.