Twitter has suspended an account, @suspendthepres, over tweets that it says violated its community guidelines by glorifying violence. The only problem? The tweets in question were copied verbatim from President Trump's own account.
One of the tweets flagged by Twitter was the same one in which Trump said, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" — copying a famous line attributed to Miami police chief Walter Headley — in order to threaten protesters responding to the murder of George Floyd. During the 1960s, Headley claimed a rise in violence was being caused by "young hoodlums" taking advantage of the civil rights movement, and encouraged police to respond to violence with shotguns.
Toeing the line — After Trump last week posted the same tweet to his own account to much backlash, Twitter hid it behind a dislaimer that reads, "This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible." Users must click "View" to reveal the contents of the tweet.
By hiding Trump's tweet Twitter finally admitted his posts are dangerous (his comments have frequently been linked to real-world violence), but it has always made exceptions for him, arguing the public should see everything the President of the United States has to say so they can make informed decisions at the ballot box. Even when his posts are demonstrably false or incendiary. It's more than Facebook, however, which has refused to take any action against the same posts seen on its platform, resulting in more than 400 employees walking out yesterday.
Days before hiding the tweet that suggested police shoot protesters, Twitter for the first time placed a fact-check against one of Trump's other tweets spreading misinformation about mail-in voting. Trump responded by signing an unenforceable executive order aimed at limiting the content-policing abilities of social media platforms. Trump claims he's being silenced and his constitutional rights are being infringed.
Twitter is trying to strike a balance between allowing anyone to speak and directing users to safe sources of information. Typically the president is a reliable source of information because they have extensive resources from all agencies of government informing them. But Trump ignores experts, and it doesn't help that several agencies have contradicted one another with different advice on public health in regards to the coronavirus. Twitter recognizes a need to protect its users but fears nixing the president in the process and drawing even more scrutiny. Plus, with Trump being an enormous draw for the platform, censoring him risks affecting the bottom line.
The snowflake president? — Besides the fact that Twitter is a private company and therefore has every right to silence users or fact-check them, Trump might ironically be hurting himself by trying to curb Twitter's freedoms. The company is currently protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants it immunity from consequences for any content posted on its service. If Twitter were to lose its protection under Section 230 it may actually be required to delete Trump's tweets in order to protect itself in the event that someone got hurt over content he posted to the service.
If Trump and Republicans actually cared about free speech, as they like to claim, they wouldn't be trying to take away the right of a private company to decide what content it should carry. As some have rightfully argued, Trump is so popular among his base that even if he were outright suspended on Twitter, his fanbase would likely broadcast his message across the internet anyway. Which is their constitutional right under the current statutes, but shouldn't affect Twitter's ability to police its users.
Either way, it's hard to see the executive order going anywhere, and like many Trump orders, it'll probably make the rounds through the courts before disappearing. Trump has already mostly moved on to visiting churches and threatening military action in order to clamp down on lawful protests that make him look bad. Because few things are more fragile than the president's ego.