Even before Donald Trump took the office of president, we knew that his social media presence would be chaotic and undisciplined. Once inaugurated, Trump quickly outdid himself, doubling down on all of his destructive tendencies. Ever since, he has fomented a toxic brew of poisonous disinformation, harassment, and calls for vengeance. He has used his Twitter accounts to target individuals who questioned his decisions (from union leaders to state officials), bringing the full force of his cybermob to target them with on- and offline violence. The governor of Michigan and the Georgia secretary of state have faced death plots and threats, to name recent examples. Trump has also spread lies that corroded our already frayed trust in institutions, polarized the electorate, and risked lives. Tweets questioning the value of wearing masks during COVID—because it’s not manly or some such absurdity—no doubt led to reckless behavior and deaths.
During his presidency, Twitter and other social media companies have taken the position that public officials are different. In their view, and in the view of many who counseled them (including me—I have been a member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety board since its inception in 2015 and an adviser since 2009), the public had a legitimate interest in the activity of the president and others in public office. That did not mean that no rules applied to their online activity, but the public’s legitimate interest in knowing what public officials were up to had to factor into decisions about content moderation, including banning.
That made sense in 2017. In theory, it makes sense today. But its practical application deserves some rethinking. That policy, as applied, has worked to protect, even indulge, public officials who repeatedly violate a company’s speech policy. There were no strikes too many for Trump. From what any of us can tell, Twitter made decisions in isolation, so no one tweet ever went too far. A tweet might constitute hate speech, threats, bullying, and health disinformation in violation of the company’s policies. But the public still might want to know about it. This was true even if the tweet would be understood as deeply destructive to public health and safety (as well as our democracy) if viewed in its broader context.
Over the past year or so, Twitter has stepped forward to deal with some of the destruction. It has slapped labels on destructive lies about COVID-19 and election results in the hope that countermessaging might mute some of their force. Twitter says that it has been working to slow down the spread of destructive disinformation, including cheapfakes—manipulated media that doesn’t involve artificial intelligence.
But the president should not be permitted to continue tweeting. His presence on the site is no longer tenable. I would have suspended his account long ago, given how harmful he has been to public health and our democracy. But Wednesday showed that he needs a serious timeout, perhaps a permanent one.
For weeks, he has made unfounded accusations of election fraud and targeted state officials. Making good on his debate-stage suggestion that the Proud Boys should “stand down and stand by,” he called upon his followers to come to Washington to prevent Congress from certifying the vote. And they heeded his tweets, with assault weapons in tow. In a speech to his followers Wednesday, Trump lit the flame, saying that they should never give up because the election was stolen. He disparaged Democratic federal lawmakers who were stealing the election from him and said, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” He urged them to “show strength and be strong.” Twice he said, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol.” Shortly thereafter, Trump’s followers stormed the U.S. Capitol, harming police officers. One woman was shot (though it’s not clear by whom). Looking at all of this activity as a whole, it’s clear that the president incited violence. Even if he can’t be criminally prosecuted while he is in office and will surely pardon himself, there is a strong case to be made that he committed a crime in inciting violence, which would not enjoy First Amendment protection.
When OneZero reporter Will Oremus asked Twitter on Wednesday if it intended to do anything about Trump’s account, it said it “will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules. Let us be clear: Threats of and calls to violence have no place on Twitter, and we will enforce our policies accordingly.” There may not be any individual tweets that violate Twitter’s policies. But if Twitter is going to treat public officials differently, that should mean looking at all of their activity, on and off the site, to assess their real impact. The president is a force multiplier upon a force multiplier; the platform’s algorithms are designed to amplify content that will be clicked on, as the president’s negative and outrageous tweets are. His tweets—disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence and harassment—travel far faster and to a far wider audience than most tweets. His words, on and offline, have led to mob violence and abuse. He has violated Twitter’s speech policies over and over again, and collectively the disinformation and incitement have led to a public health disaster and incited mob violence. He needs to go.
On Wednesday afternoon, Trump tweeted a video statement in which he repeated lies about the “stolen election” before calling on his supporters to leave the Capitol. Twitter responded by limiting the tweet’s spread and added a label saying, “This claim of election fraud is disputed, and this Tweet can’t be replied to, Retweeted, or liked due to a risk of violence.” But limiting the tweet’s reach won’t address the far greater problem of Trump’s Twitter account. [Update, Jan. 6, 2021, at 7:10 p.m.: Twitter says that “we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump’s Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy,” including the video statement. Twitter continues, “This means that the account of @realDonaldTrump will be locked for 12 hours following the removal of these Tweets. If the Tweets are not removed, the account will remain locked.” Furthermore, “Future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension.”]
Jack Dorsey has suggested in interviews that he is game to fix problems as they arise. I and countless others who have called for Twitter to kick Trump off would like to take you up on that offer and the epistemic humility it reveals. Time to change how you apply the rules to public officials so that you see their destructive activity as a whole.