Twitter's Speech Policies Shouldn't Be a Campaign Issue

Senator Kamala Harris has a message for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: It’s past time to eject President Trump, America’s Tweeter in Chief, from the platform. On Tuesday, the presidential hopeful penned a letter to Dorsey pointing to several recent Trump tweets, including the now-infamous “Civil War” tweet and several targeting the whistle-blower and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, as evidence that the president has violated Twitter’s policies against harassment and incitement of violence.

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Twitter's Never Going to Ban Donald Trump According to Twitter, the company has received the letter and intends to respond. Who wants to guess what that response is going to be? Presumably, it’s gonna be a fancy “No.” The history of Trump’s presidency and Twitter’s own rules practically guarantee it.Progressive activists have been demanding the tech company shutter Trump’s Twitter account since before he was elected, but #BanTrump backlashes have become the norm during his time in the White House. In June 2017, US representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota called for Twitter to ban Trump after a series of defamatory tweets directed at Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski, and Twitter did not ban him. By August, a former CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, was attempting to crowdfund her way to purchasing Twitter outright, just so she could kick Trump off the platform. In 2018, after taunting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in tweets that many people felt threatened nuclear war, many Democrats, watchdog organizations, and commentators called for Twitter to ban Trump. Twitter refused, citing concerns like censorship and the inherent newsworthiness of presidential tweets. There is next to no reason to believe that Twitter will change its position this year.
Twitter is especially not likely to do this since it has updated its rules to avoid the conversation Harris is trying to have. As of this June, Twitter announced that it would start labeling—but not removing—tweets from government officials that break its bullying and harassment rules. The blog post announcing the change made no explicit reference to President Trump, but the rule applies to verified leaders, representatives, and candidates with over 100,000 followers, so they definitely apply to him. (Twitter has faced criticism for failing to apply this label to past Trump tweets, including one that instructed US Congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from, which struck many observers as racist.)

In fact, creating a different, laxer set of rules for government officials seems to be the going strategy for social media platforms: Last month, Facebook announced that it will not be removing—or labeling—posts from politicians and military figures who break its terms of service, nor will it subject them to independent fact-checking.

Reasons to object to these rules abound. They lack moral conviction . They are unnecessarily lenient for a private company to which the First Amendment does not apply. In general, rules work best when they apply to everyone. Both Twitter and Facebook are trying to avoid (dubious) claims of conservative censorship by saying that it is inappropriate for them to determine whether a world leader’s speech is permissible, but they routinely make that decision for everyone else. (Facebook’s version feels especially egregious. A platform that censors images of gay kissing, breastfeeding, and shirtless little boys at the beach but allowed Myanmar’s military to foment what the UN has called a genocide and refuses to fact-check political speech going into an election year is just ineffably out of whack.)
It’s also worth noting it’s not just Trump and Jack Dorsey who would rather see the president’s tweeting record complete and unaltered. When Trump deleted several tweets in 2017, watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive filed a lawsuit, claiming the deletions represented a violation of the Presidential Records Act. (The lawsuit was dismissed.) Pushing back on Trump’s inflammatory remarks shouldn’t mean expunging them from the historical record. Besides, deplatforming doesn't always have the intended effect: Banning Trump from Twitter, if it were to ever happen, would likely only heighten his and his supporters' sense of persecution.