President-elect Donald Trump loves Twitter.
“I love Twitter…. it’s like owning your own newspaper--- without the losses,” he tweeted in 2012.
Twitter isn’t like owning your own newspaper, though. Trump doesn’t control Twitter; in fact, he must abide by its rules. And the platform shouldn’t love him back. Vanity Fair wondered last week if Trump should be suspended from Twitter, ultimately concluding that he should not. “The bar to ban Trump is, of course, absurdly high, now that he is about to become the nation’s next president, even if there were a case for his suspension,” VF wrote. This is the wrong conclusion, because the case for his suspension is strong.
Twitter has written its rules and terms of service to give itself enormous leeway for whom it bans and why it bans them. The company’s microblogging service is the preferred method for the president-elect to spread destabilizing falsehoods, propaganda glorifying imaginary accomplishments, and proposals to strip people of citizenship for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free expression. If Twitter wants, this could be grounds for expulsion.
Twitter’s original moderation policy was basically this GIF. It was the nasty daiquiri party to Instagram’s and Facebook’s prudish picnics. In 2008, cofounder Biz Stone shrugged off one of the company’s first high-profile harassment scandals by insisting that Twitter was a “communication utility, not a mediator of content” after a user complained about a persistent stalker. As late as 2013, the New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen was congratulating Twitter users for self-regulation after an anti-Semitic hashtag made the rounds.
“Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hashtag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention,” Rosen wrote. It’s an odd compliment to grok in 2016, the year the future president-elect used Twitter to broadcast an anti-Semitic campaign advertisement.
Twitter’s “let them self-regulate” ethos did not work out. It wasn’t the fun digital equivalent of your favorite bar; instead, it devolved into an online frat house for menaces. Dick Costolo, the company’s CEO at the time, admitted in February 2015 that Twitter “sucked” at dealing with abuse. Disney allegedly passed on buying it because of Twitter’s “honeypot for assholes” reputation.
Hemmed in by its dedication to letting people be awful, Twitter began to seriously reassess its rules. In addition to introducing new tools to report harassment, it started suspending and permanently banning high-profile users. Earlier this month, the company suspended white nationalist Richard Spencer, and prior to that it ejected the blogger Milo Yiannopoulos because he encouraged and participated in the racist harassment of actor Leslie Jones. When I wrote about these banishments, I highlighted the ways in which Spencer’s racist ideology and Yiannopoulos’s targeted incitement of harassment ran afoul of Twitter’s stated rules, and why the company was and is perfectly justified, both morally and legally, to dismiss these men.
Following this reasoning, it would also be a fine idea to ban Donald J. Trump.
To get this out of the way: Twitter’s terms of service state that the company “may suspend or terminate your account or cease providing you with all or part of the Services at any time for any or no reason,” emphasis mine, because this is wild. Even I do not think it would be wise for Twitter to start banning people for no reason, but it’s worth pointing out that it can. It’s a private, for-profit company. The First Amendment enshrines the right to freedom of speech by prohibiting the government from making laws suppressing expression; Twitter would not be infringing on Trump’s extremely healthy freedom to speak even if the rationale for banning him were nonsense. Arguments about how banning Trump from a private publishing platform violates the First Amendment only show that some people are unfamiliar with the Constitution. Again — the fact that Twitter can ban anyone for any reason that doesn’t break nondiscrimination laws doesn’t mean that it should. What it means is that Twitter is, for better or for worse, its own bouncer.
And there are plenty of reasons Twitter could ban the president-elect. Melanie Ehrenkranz at Mic has argued that Trump could be banned for violating the company’s overhauled abuse policies, and I agree that the platform could determine that some of his tweets violate the revamped policy, both by direct harassment and by inciting hate speech. And more broadly, the president-elect has chosen Twitter to serve as a conduit for authoritarian political propaganda, particularly his insistence that the democratic process is untrustworthy.
“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted on Sunday, following up with an allegation that serious voter fraud had occurred in California, New Hampshire, and Virginia, and that the media hadn’t covered it. There is no viable evidence to support these accusations. Trump has already used Twitter to disseminate misinformation before, but the audacity of these lies is especially jarring.
Monday night, he continued to insist via retweeting and quoting others’ tweets that election fraud had occurred in favor of Hillary Clinton. He uses Twitter to repeatedly provoke doubt about the legitimacy of elections. The fact that he won the Electoral College makes his continued fixation on “rigging” odd, but no less corrosive.
“Most experts concur that elections in the U.S. are free and fair, even if imperfect. By raising this concern, Trump is in essence questioning the viability of the democratic system in the U.S. and the political institutions that support it,” Michigan State political science professor Erica Frantz told me. Frantz, who studies dictatorships, said she was concerned that Trump would follow through on some campaign promises and set back U.S. democracy. “This type of ‘authoritarianization’ would be consistent with how democracies have eroded elsewhere in the world in the last decade or two,” she said, noting that the language Trump used in some of his speeches reminded her of statements made by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as he implemented media restrictions.
While Twitter is not as popular as Facebook, and not as widely used as it is influential, it serves as an essential step in Trump’s propaganda propagation. “Trump still relies on other outlets to distribute the content of those tweets to his supporters. In this sense, Twitter is not that different from issuing a press release,” Select All’s Brian Feldman wrote recently.
“[Trump’s] generating stories for CBS and NBC, and for that matter, Facebook. He’s generating stories that create an entire media sphere on their own. That is the source of his power,” historian Fred Turner said in an interview with TechCrunch writer Kim-Mai Cutler. “He is using the old fascist charisma, but he’s doing it in a media environment in which the social and the commercial, the individual and the mass, are already completely entwined.”
Many politicians use Twitter, from President Obama to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. This is not because there are any laws stipulating that Twitter must let them. Twitter is not obligated to allow politicians to use its service as a state misinformation press release platform. It would not be intellectual silencing for a technology and publishing platform to expel its most notorious troll. It would be an act of disobedience that would stymie Trump’s thus-far-successful communications strategy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses Twitter despite banning the service several times. Could Twitter also ban Erdogan? Yes. And perhaps it should. But since Trump has essentially conscripted Twitter into acting as a de facto mouthpiece while he ducks the traditional press corps — and because I am a U.S. citizen — I am giving Trump’s case special urgency.
This isn’t about arresting someone who tries to shout provocations in a public park. This is about the legal right and moral consideration the owner of a tavern has about when to eject a person holding a hateful rally and screaming lies within that tavern.
We should worry that tech companies cheerlead an optimistic but myopic techno-utopianist perspective in which they are empowered to solve the world’s problems but not burdened with the responsibility of acknowledging when they’ve created them. I wish we did not live in a world where a handful of men in hoodies have so dominated how we find and listen to each other that they are the arbiters of this speech. But here we are. Twitter gets to decide who speaks on its platform.
“We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up,” Twitter’s rules state. Speaking truth to power is a fantastic philosophy. Donald Trump is a con artist who uses Twitter to scam gullible people and give exclusive media missives without pesky editors or interlocutors.
Dissent is essential for democracy, and especially since a handful of digital publishers have a special hold over the industry, the ways tech companies choose to moderate and regulate speech should be closely scrutinized. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s most recent study on online censorship highlights how Twitter and Facebook are frequently stupid and opaque as they haphazardly remove content and suspend users.
“Users who want Twitter to adopt much stricter policies against harassment might consider the case of Bill Cosby, whose extraordinary comedic career has come to be overshadowed, especially online, by allegations of sexual assault. On Monday, a message (since deleted) on Cosby’s Twitter page asked fans to add their own text to images of Cosby. A number of users responded by creating grotesque juxtapositions, adding caustic sexual-assault references to the smiling photographs of Cosby,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in a 2014 New Yorker piece about Twitter’s difficulty with content moderation. “This was probably harassment of a sort, too, although — depending on your feelings about Cosby, and about the allegations, and about gender violence more broadly — you might consider it noble harassment.” Sanneh noted that content moderation is never ideologically neutral, and indeed, this would be an ideologically charged action: It would be overtly anti-authoritarian.
It is reasonable to fear that companies like Twitter could adopt severe restrictions on expression, where caustic jokes are interpreted as hate speech, where rowdy arguments are recast as harassment, where religious zeal is interpreted as terrorism. Banning a school of political thought creates a slippery slope to banishment for no reason. This is why it is important to push Twitter to be transparent about whom it bans. But Twitter already bans some ideologies — violent extremist propaganda from ISIS, for instance. And I’d rather be on a slippery slope than in a fetid sewer.
“Denouncing Trump as a liar, or describing him as merely entertaining, misses the point of authoritarian propaganda altogether. Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality,” philosophy professor Jason Stanley wrote in The New York Times before the election. “This campaign season has been an indictment of our understanding of mass communication. Either we lacked the ability or concepts to describe authoritarian propaganda, or we lacked the will. Either way, we must do better.” Twitter can do better. It won’t allow pornography, or snuff films, or — at least according to its rules — harassment. It does not need to allow a charismatic narcissist to dominate its platform.
Would Twitter ever? I never imagined it’d ban white nationalist figureheads until it banned white nationalist figureheads. Twitter has shown it can change. A Trump ban would exponentially increase anger, and it would risk turning the president-elect into a martyr figure. Some right-wing users have already migrated to fledgling social networks like Gab.ai, which has adopted an even more hardline “free speech” position than Twitter did a decade ago; many more would migrate as a gesture of defiance. But this risk is worthwhile. Milo Yiannopoulos’s visibility died down when he was kicked off Twitter. While “daddy” Trump is obviously far more visible and entrenched in mainstream media than a Breitbart blogger, cutting off his favored way of communicating would undoubtedly disrupt his favored method of disseminating misinformation and confront the volatile president-elect with the limitations of his powers. If Trump weren’t on Twitter, then the outrage cycle surrounding his tweets wouldn’t exist — maybe then we’d focus on his policies.
In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook employees had an internal debate over whether to remove some of Trump’s posts on the grounds that they constituted hate speech. Facebook did not remove the posts because Mark Zuckerberg decided it was inappropriate to ban a candidate’s posts so close to an election. Twitter should use this opportunity to prove it has bigger cojones than Facebook.
And you know what? When I asked Twitter whether it had considered banning misinformation from elected officials, and specifically if it had discussed banning Donald Trump, I got an interesting answer. “The Twitter Rules apply to all accounts,” spokesperson Nu Wexler responded via email. And after the election, cofounder Jack Dorsey tweeted the following statement: “I commit to using the privilege I currently have to always speak this truth to power, and to ensure the common good leads everything we do.” Trump has built a personality sect grounded in class resentment, racism, and misogyny. Television was an asset, but Twitter’s role cannot be underplayed. It’s his lucky mic. To combat authoritarianism, Twitter has a role to play. It can hide the mic.