Angry that Twitter has added fact-checks to some of his tweets, President Trump came unglued this morning and threatened to “strongly regulate” or shut down the social media platform. The president is an avid – some would say “addicted” – user of the platform and tweeting has been a mainstay of his communication since before his presidential campaign.
President Trump has long faced criticism for his use of Twitter but the current fracas erupted after the president began tweeting about a conspiracy theory that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered an aide who died in his congressional office in 2001. An autopsy revealed that Lori Klausutis had died from an undiagnosed heart condition that caused her to hit her head as she fell.
Klausutis’ family were offended by Trump’s tweets and her former husband wrote to Twitter earlier this week asking that the tweets be removed. Twitter’s response was to add fact-checks to some of Trump’s tweets that include false statements. This apparently does not include the tweets about Scarborough which are still posted with no message.
President Trump responded to the new policy by alleging that Twitter was “interfering” in the presidential election and “completely stifling free speech.”
In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that social media companies “totally silence conservative [sic] voices.” The president then threatened to “strongly regulate” or “close them down.”
Other Republicans, such as Josh Hawley of Missouri, quickly jumped on the bandwagon. On Fox News, Hawley claimed that “Big Tech” was being subsidized by the federal government to “censor conservatives.”
The problems with these arguments are immense. First, Trump has obviously not been censored or silenced. The offending tweets have not been removed and has account has not been banned or suppressed. Adding a fact-check to a false statement is not censorship.
Second, so what if it was censorship? Twitter is a private company and First Amendment protections do no protect against actions by private companies. The Bill of Rights is a list of protections against the government, not corporations.
Trump’s threat to regulate will be popular with many Republicans, but it will also represent a huge expansion of government into regulating online speech. Many on the right even want to the government to bypass Congress by deeming that social media companies are publishers rather than tech platforms. Changing the definition of the type of company would enable government regulation through a backdoor that avoids difficult questions and battles in Congress, but arbitrarily redefining whether laws apply is typically how American government works.
However it’s done, the idea of mandating that the government control fairness on social media is a shortsighted one, especially six months before an election in which Republicans are likely to get trounced. President Trump may regulate social media companies just in time for Joe Biden to appoint the first social media czar.
The bottom line is that Twitter is a private company and has every right to set the rules for their own platform. That includes the right to set community standards and call out politicians – and presidents – who use the network as a means to distribute false propaganda to their followers.
President Trump has a long history of violating Twitter’s terms of service with personal attacks, veiled threats, witness tampering, and fake news. The site has every right to ban the president and cancel his account. Trump should be grateful that he is still allowed to tweet where lesser users would be exiled to “Twitmo” or permanently banned.
But, in reality, Donald Trump and Twitter have a symbiotic relationship. Trump has an outlet to speak directly with his followers and Twitter has a major draw for its service. Neither is going to bite the hand that feeds it.
My only real problem with Twitter’s warning labels is that the tactic should be evenly applied. Yes, the president lies and misuses Twitter but so do thousands of others. Twitter’s response should be ideologically neutral and should target the Twitter trolls of the left as well as the Troll-in-Chief.