On Friday, Twitter defended its policy to keep Donald Trump on its platform yet again, after the president seemed to goad North Korea toward a nuclear confrontation while treating that catastrophic possibility with the gravity of a dick-measuring contest. (What else is new?) The social network cast its service of providing a micro-blogging forum as a civic utility, claiming that it “serve[s] and help[s] advance the global, public conversation.” Its blog post continued in this half-convincing manner, arguing that “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.”
There are many compelling reasons to let Trump keep tweeting. But Twitter’s statement reeked of disingenuousness, doing nothing to dispel its critics’ suspicion that the company is relying on the president (and his poor impulse control) to bring in new users and profit off online aggression. (In the same post, the company claimed that “no one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions.”) But the mere goal of “advancing conversation” is inadequate on a platform where disinformation, hate, and vicious harassment thrive. And if Twitter is sincere about Trump’s statements being “important information people should be able to see,” the company should let everyone actually see them. Twitter’s stance is that POTUS is too big to block. It follows that he’s too big to be able to block others.
Admittedly, Twitter blocking Trump from blocking others would be largely symbolic. It’s unknown how many users Trump has blocked, but roundups of obstructed users like this one usually aren’t very extensive. And it’s easy to bypass a Trump block with a second account or a news write-up if journalists who have been stopped by the president from reading his statements or the threads below them need to study them. Legal cases about social media access to politicians (or the lack thereof) have focused on constituents’ free speech rights to express their views, with at least one judge deciding that blocking a voter based on their disagreement with a politico amounts to “viewpoint discrimination.” (Last summer, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a class-action suit against Trump on behalf of blocked users.)
But this shouldn’t just be a legal issue. Social-media platforms that host major political presences should take an active role in regulating high-profile accounts with the aim of facilitating the open dialogue those companies claim is a common good. Perhaps the political figures whose speech Twitter finds so vital to protect should be grouped in a new tier of users who have their block buttons taken away, so that their tweets are instantly available to all. It’s extremely improbable that Trump reads all of his notifications anyway. And if Trump is too thin-skinned to deal with Americans being mad at him, well, him spending less time on Twitter wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
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