Remember when Hillary Clinton warned "A man you can bait with a tweet shouldn't have nuclear codes"? Well, here we are, and it's worse than we imagined. Why won't Twitter act?
Day after day, we watch the President of the United States behave abominably on Twitter. He’s especially off the rails right now in light of the Paul Manafort indictment and the George Papadopoulos guilty plea. He’s yelling about the guilt of the Democrats and Hillary Clinton, trying to distance himself from Manafort and Papadopoulos, and generally just trying to cast blame anywhere but on himself. But his terrible Twitter behavior, of course, well predates this particular episode. In just the last few months, he retweeted a GIF that showed Trump hitting Hillary Clinton in the head with a golf ball, clearly glorifying violence against Hillary. (He still calls her Crooked Hillary too, because he’s the world’s sorest winner.) He tweeted out a video of himself beating up a person with CNN imposed over their face, clearly calling for violence against reporters. He shared, then deleted, a cartoon where the “Trump Train” ran over CNN, just a few days after white supremacists ran down, and murdered, a protester in Charlottesville. Oh, and he’s not above denigrating his own side either. He’s trashed Bob Corker, whined about Mitch McConnell not getting a health-care deal done, and he really hates John McCain. In short, he’s actively called on his army of supporters to be in the very least, verbally violent against people with whom he disagrees.
But nowhere is Trump’s Twitter presence more dangerous than in his repeated taunting of North Korea. He tweeted that “military solutions are now in place, locked and loaded.” He used Twitter to tell his own Secretary of State to stop negotiating with North Korea. Then, he escalated, saying that we’ve talked to North Korea for 25 years to no avail and that “only one thing will work!”
Yes, that’s the President calling for what appears to be nuclear annihilation. If that interpretation seems like a reach, remember that back in September, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, although at least he did that in a speech rather than on Twitter.
In other words, Trump is basically an uber-troll. He rarely tweets from his official government handle, but happily uses his personal account to lash out at anyone that displeases him. Imagine if Barack Obama had used his personal Twitter account to attack conservatives daily. The press would have been apoplectic.
These days, journalists are forced to cover a president by leaping from tweet to tweet, desperately trying to pin down what Trump is thinking and who he is threatening today. Perhaps worst of all, it remains unclear as to the legal status of Trump’s Twitter account. Are his tweets Presidential records? Can he delete them?
So, with all that, why is Trump still on Twitter? Why doesn’t Twitter just ban him, as they have with other full-time trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos and Martin Shkreli? Twitter never actually says why it bans someone, but with Milo it is likely because he called on his army of 300,000 horrible followers to go after actress Leslie Jones in disgustingly racist ways. Shkreli was suspended, and then ultimately permanently banned, after he slid into TeenVogue writer Lauren Duca’s DMs to ask her to accompany him to the inauguration and then proceeded, after her refusal, to behave in increasingly creepy ways, including photoshopping her picture into his Twitter header.
Twitter’s rules make it perfectly clear that it was appropriate to have banned Milo and Martin. You’re in violation of their rules if you “incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others,” which is exactly what both of them did. Milo called on his followers to do the harassing; Martin took care of it himself. Trump isn’t above leveraging his followers to attack women either. Back in 2015, a young woman had the temerity to ask him a question at a town hall about whether he would be a friend to women. Trump called her out on Twitter, and his followers sprang into action, tweeting out her phone number and email address and hurling abuse and rape threats at her. Twitter, of course, took no action against Trump for his part in this.
These days, Trump is more into violating a different portion of the Twitter rules: making threats of violence or promoting violence. The man is basically threatening to start WWIII via Twitter and he retweets violent gifs about Hillary Clinton and CNN, but Twitter just looks the other way. Why? Several reasons, actually.
First is that the head of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, finds Trump’s Twitter presence “interesting” instead of, oh, “terrifying” or “appalling.”
“Having the president-elect on our service—using it as a direct line of communication—allows everyone to see what’s on his mind in the moment. I think that’s interesting. I think it’s fascinating. I haven’t seen that before.”
Next is that Jack and company seem to have invented a new criterion that applies, apparently, only to Trump, which is that you can behave as abusively as you want as long as your behavior is “newsworthy” or of “public interest.” This is, of course, a nonsense standard. Milo’s behavior was newsworthy. Repugnant, but newsworthy. Same with Shkreli. They’re both already-notorious people that were doing outrageous things, which is pretty much the definition of newsworthy. Twitter also justified it by saying the company is committed to transparency and “keeping people informed about what is happening in the world.” Put another way, Twitter isn’t going to get rid of Trump because he’s the leader of the free world and Twitter isn’t bold enough to take away Trump’s platform-a platform that serves as a place for Trump’s vicious, unfiltered, and dangerous thoughts.
Trump supporters would probably argue that Trump has a First Amendment right to use Twitter to say whatever he would like. (This is, of course, a huge irony since much of Trump’s Twitter presence these days is dedicated to calling for the press to be essentially shut down because he thinks they are fake news.) What people miss in all of this – indeed, what Twitter itself fails to understand in all of this – is that Twitter is not a government entity. They don’t owe anyone a platform to spew hate and disinformation. If they choose to toss Trump, they’re a private company making a private decision. On the other hand, if Trump gets his way, the government would restrict what the news media could say, which is a First Amendment violation.
Unfortunately, through all of this, what Twitter remains committed to is making more money for Twitter. That’s why it continues to “innovate” by doing things like doubling the character limit on tweets to 280 rather than, say, banning the startling number of virulent racists and actual Nazis that use the platform. It even verified white nationalist and human punching bag Richard Spencer.
Apparently, you need to put up with a lot of Nazis and abuse to try to make your platform profitable. You also need to let the Russians buy $274,000 worth of ads that target the U.S. market and then give a really subpar explanation to the government about it when asked for details. You also let your platform become a major source of fake news in the run-up to the election: Out of a sample of roughly 1 million political tweets in the days before the 2016 election, roughly 256,000 of those were to credible sources and roughly 203,000 were to completely fake news. Twitter also seems to pay no mind to the Russians creating spambot followers by the hundreds, like they just did recently to pump up Roy Moore’s social media presence.
The punchline of all of this? It still isn’t enough. Twitter lets Trump terrorize us, lets the Russians influence our elections, becomes a major conduit for outright disinformation, and it’s still not profitable. A share of Twitter stock is worth roughly 1/10 of that of Facebook. Facebook adds nearly 20 users for every user Twitter adds. Twitter’s only business strategy right now is focusing on “winning more users.”
So what if those users are Russian spambots? So what if those users exist only to sow disinformation and dread? So what if those users are actual racists and Nazis? So what if those users send death and rape threats? So what if those users are the President of the United States, unmoored from reality, unshackled by any rules, and able to keep using Twitter forever because his terrible behavior will always be “newsworthy?’
Perhaps Twitter believes that if it assembles enough terrible people, that will magically help it turn a profit.
All that will happen is that the rest of us, whether we use Twitter or not, will suffer. And we’ll eventually leave the platform, too, balancing out any gains the spambots may have delivered. We all get to live in fear of what Donald Trump might tweet next, and whether the next nuclear threat will be real rather than just bluster. All because Twitter doesn’t feel like enforcing its own terms of service.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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