Future Tense

Twitter’s Trump Fact Check Won’t Solve Much, but at Least It’s Something

We’ve gotten so used to being thwarted that we’ve resorted to doing nothing at all.

Donald Trump getting cursed out by a Twitter bird.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images.

On Monday and Tuesday, President Donald Trump attempted to redirect headlines about the nearly 100,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 by retweeting grotesque slurs about prominent female leaders and redoubling his scurrilous claims that TV host Joe Scarborough was somehow responsible for the death of a former aide, Lori Klausutis. The claim is a lie. But his fans lapped it up as the rest of the country and much of the world looked on in horror. This is not even political behavior—it’s psychotic behavior. It has now been called out by even a few Republican lawmakers, including Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who begged Trump on Sunday to “Just stop. Stop spreading it, stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us.” We all looked on in wonder to see what would happen next.

On Tuesday, the New York Times’ Kara Swisher published part of a letter that Klausutis’ widower, Timothy Klausutis, sent last week to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, imploring him to “intervene in this instance because the president of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him—the memory of my dead wife—and perverted it for perceived political gain.” Swisher speculated that Twitter would likely do something in response. Its first efforts, to merely apologize, were reasonably pathetic, making it clear Dorsey would have to actually do something. We all gaped and imagined what it might be.

In a Rose Garden appearance Tuesday morning at which the president repeated the slander about Scarborough, a reporter asked Trump whether he had seen Klausutis’ letter to Dorsey. Instead of accepting that the family had been savaged by his cruelty, the president opted to further enroll them in it, insisting, “I’m sure that, ultimately, they want to get to the bottom of it, and it’s a very serious situation,” adding, “As you know, there’s no statute of limitations. So, it would be a very good, very good thing to do.” We all waited in stunned apprehension to see what Twitter would do in response.

On Tuesday night, Twitter took the unprecedented step of attaching warning labels accompanied by links to fact checks to two of the president’s false tweets. The tweets in question asserted that vote-by-mail programs were the equivalent of sweeping electoral fraud, which they are not. Nothing of the sort has been done before, and it is clear that this was tantamount to a declaration of war by the social media company on the relentless stream of made-up and debunked claims Trump continuously posts on the platform. The response was predictable: Everyone sat around on tenterhooks wondering how Trump would respond to being fact-checked. Would he freak out? Would he threaten a lawsuit? Would he send Bill Barr and the Department of Justice to make unsubstantiated threats? The public vibe Tuesday evening was akin to either a mass of hushed spectators at a Trump/Dorsey match at Wimbledon, or the children of an extremely abusive parent awaiting a violent explosion.

A violent explosion did indeed follow, as the night follows the day. Trump tweeted his response just a bit later on Tuesday evening, alleging that the Twitter fact check function somehow amounts to electoral interference. He seemed unaware of what election laws had been broken. Never mind. The president then went on to threaten that Twitter was “completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!” although anyone with a brain quickly pointed out that private companies are not state actors and Trump has no First Amendment claims here. Moreover, the president’s subsequent threats to shut down social media companies because they “totally silence conservatives voices” does raise genuine First Amendment issues, just not in Trump’s favor, and if the president understood anything at all about the Constitution, he would perhaps know as much. But of course he doesn’t. So never mind. And of course this made for yet more must-see, silent, slack-jawed, public goggling. Because that seems to be all we have left: intramural arguments about whether all this was put in place too late, or whether it will only serve to encourage him, or whether Twitter is doing this for self-interested financial reasons, or whether this will all make everything much, much worse for democracy in the long term. Anderson Cooper seemed to run out of words entirely. And as Kara Swisher noted in her original piece, almost anything Twitter has previously done has resulted “only in Twitter’s governance getting gamed by players like Mr. Trump, in ways that are both shameless and totally expected.” She reflects on her own uncertainty about what kind of remedial efforts could make a difference, noting that even the warning label solution that Twitter ended up deploying on Tuesday evening “is both naïve and will be ineffective—most people’s experience tracks with that old axiom: A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still getting its shoes on.”

Maybe that’s true. But I also think it speaks volumes about the current degradation of both media and democracy that each time the president behaves cruelly, recklessly, and entirely predictably, it seems the public response is to oscillate between breathlessly waiting for what comes next and disparaging whatever measures are taken to stop him. This is an abusive relationship, of the textbook varietal. There is no obvious escape from the Trump mind trap, that is true. But somehow we have managed to convince ourselves that our only option is to look on in horror and fight about the general pointlessness of any and all remedial actions.

Donald Trump is trapped in his own sad head. Asked to show empathy for COVID victims, for Lori Klausutis’ surviving family members, for the people around him forced to wear masks so that he need not, or even just for the Americans seeking words of comfort and solace, he digs deep and unerringly finds only empathy for his own sad head. Some tragic proportion of lost souls delights in his spectacle of bullying and name-calling, but the vast majority has choices to make. The choice goes beyond whom to vote for in November; the question is how we can secure an election that Trump has telegraphed that he would like to steal. The answer is not to stand on the sidelines watching. Ceding power to the self-obsessed makes the self-obsessed more so. Taking power from the self-obsessed demands redirecting every ounce of energy we waste gaming out how batshit he is toward saving vote-by-mail, voter registration, reenfranchisement efforts, and every other mechanism being put into place to protect the possibility of a fair election in November. Mute helplessness and gaping wonder and lamenting that any efforts won’t do much good anyway are still choices, and as our ability to make choices narrows, we should resist it at all costs. It is numbing and paralyzing and it feeds on itself.

By Wednesday morning, as the United States finally crossed the line to 100,000 dead and COVID cases spiked in red states around the country, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board excoriated Trump for “debasing his office, and … hurting the country in doing so,” while calling the president’s Scarborough allegations “trash” and “ugly even for him.” Still, that body also sighed that “we don’t write this with any expectation that Mr. Trump will stop.” And why should they? Nobody believes that Trump will be shamed into stopping. We should all understand by now that he is not capable of stopping. The choice is not to watch and scold and lay side bets on what comes next. The choice is to make him stop, and kudos to Twitter for at least making a feint in that general direction.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.