It's Hard To Take Either Side in Trump's Twitter Spat Seriously

The president promises penalties he has no power to impose, while the company promises moderation it cannot deliver.


Last Thursday the president of the United States threw a temper tantrum disguised as an executive order, threatening to punish Twitter for daring to annotate two of his comments about voting by mail. Twitter retaliated the next day, slapping a warning label on a presidential tweet about the protests triggered by George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Donald Trump's order was legally meaningless, aiming to increase the civil liability of disfavored social media platforms in ways that are beyond his powers and that would encourage more, not less, scrutiny of online speech. But Twitter's sudden interest in policing the president's claims and rhetoric was equally hard to take seriously, promising a kind of dispassionate and consistent oversight it cannot possibly achieve with Trump, let alone every public official on Earth.

Trump, as head of the federal government's executive branch, is bound by the First Amendment. Twitter, as a private company, is not.

That remains true no matter how many times Trump calls social media platforms the "21st century equivalent of the public square," claims to be protecting "freedom of expression" and "sustaining our democracy" by fighting "online censorship," or asserts that he is "applying the ideals of the First Amendment." Those Orwellian formulations are merely cover for Trump's attempt to shape political debate by government force—exactly what the First Amendment forbids.

A politician who was committed to freedom of expression never would have issued this order. Nor would he threaten to yank the licenses of broadcasters who offend him or suggest "chang[ing] libel laws" to facilitate lawsuits by thin-skinned public figures who don't like their press coverage.

Just last year, Trump's lawyers were arguing that the First Amendment imposes no restrictions on his discretion to block critics from following him on Twitter, even though he uses his account to conduct government business. A federal appeals court disagreed, ruling that Trump's use of the account for official purposes created a "public forum" where Americans have a constitutional right to debate his policies and pronouncements.

Now Trump seems to be claiming that all of Twitter is a public forum under constitutional law, giving him a First Amendment right to use it as he chooses, unconstrained by the rules that the platform's proprietors deem appropriate. The only thread of consistency is Trump's self-interest.

The truth is exactly the opposite of Trump's view: The First Amendment protects Twitter's right to restrict or comment on users' speech. But that does not mean Twitter is exercising that right wisely, fairly, or coherently.

Around the same time that Trump was using Twitter to casually defame an MSNBC host by insinuating that he was involved in a fictional murder, the company decided to take issue with two Trump tweets warning that expanded use of mail-in ballots would lead to "substantially fraudulent" voting and a "rigged election." Those comments were hyperbolic and included at least one blatant inaccuracy—Trump's claim that all California residents would receive mail-in ballots.

But that is par for the course with Trump. If Twitter tries to keep up with all of this president's exaggerations and prevarications, especially when they are matters of interpretation, it will satisfy no one.

Twitter's next exercise in Trump moderation involved a tweet in which he called for stronger action against violent protesters, warning that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Twitter deemed that comment a "glorification of violence," ordinarily prohibited by the platform's rules, but left it up, accompanied by a "public service notice," because an elected official said it.

As with most of its rules, Twitter enforces that one haphazardly at best, as a search for the phrase "snitches get stitches" on the platform reveals. Such inconsistency, which conservatives plausibly suspect is influenced by political bias, is a big part of their beef against Twitter.

Those complaints may have merit. But that does not mean Twitter's inevitable failure to evenhandedly enforce its own rules qualifies as a constitutional issue.

© Copyright 2020 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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18 responses to “It's Hard To Take Either Side in Trump's Twitter Spat Seriously

  1. This would have been an interesting article 3 years ago.

    “threw a temper tantrum disguised as an executive order,”

    This would have been an interesting statement 10 years ago.

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  2. Why are you linking Elizabeth Abortion Brown’s “analysis” of the legality of the order? It didn’t make any fucking sense when she first posted it, and citing now just undermines your argument. Take the time to do an actual legal analysis, or outsource it to someone at VC, but for god’s sake, don’t pretend that ENB’s blather actually meant something.

    1. Citing other people’s opinion pieces that agree with your opinion as evidence in your opinion piece is how journalism works in 2020. It’s why society is working so smooth.

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    2. If you keep complaining they will go back to only posting tweets for citations.

      1. As opposed to only posting links to tweets for citations?

  3. I quit taking either side seriously years ago, and not for twitter.

    1. I will gladly take the acknowledgement from Reason the the journalism class has become a self parody that’s as clownish as the Clown in Chief. There’s been nothing more frustrating than watching virtually all journalists become a bunch of conspiracy-mongering, temper-tantrum throwing, openly-biased blowhards while Reason pretends like there are still some adults left in the room. There aren’t.

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  4. Twitter says they are no longer fact checking, but providing context. In other words narrative pushing.

    That was quick.

    1. and enforcement…????


      The principles:
      1. Decrease potential for likely harm
      2. Decrease harmful bias & incentives
      3. Decrease reliance on content removal
      4. Increase diverse perspectives
      5. Increase public accountability

      4 is the funniest.

    2. Twitter Safety

      We are NOT attempting to address all misinformation. Instead, we prioritize based on the highest potential for harm, focusing on manipulated media, civic integrity, and COVID-19. Likelihood, severity and type of potential harm — along with reach and scale — factor into this.

      In other words… they are fine with misinformation whose narrative they agree with.

  5. And yet in a fascist country where corporations are free to operate only insofar as they serve the interests of the state and corporations largely control the government, what difference does it make whether it’s the government or a private corporation infringing the right to free speech? Has Twitter got that end-to-end encryption thing where when the Feds come sniffing around for information they can tell them to fuck off? Or has Twitter got that database where the Feds can jack right in and all their information gets shared directly with the NSA and the CCP and anybody else willing to pay for it?

    And I don’t give a shit whether you call your fascism “For The Fatherland”, “For The Glory Of The Motherland”, “Protecting The Homeland”, or “Make America Great Again”, it’s all the same damn thing, that the individual exists to serve the collective. Whether it’s telling you that you’re free to do as you please except that you can’t smoke dope, can’t have a gun, can’t buy shit from China, can’t move your factory to Mexico, can’t refuse to hire Mexicans, can’t hire too many Mexicans, can’t pay Mexicans $4 an hour, have to pay to bail out GM and anybody else that’s paid their tribute to the political class, can’t venture outside, can’t let your child venture outside, and on and on and on – it’s all the same “societal harms” bullshit that means you have to place society’s interests above your own, and it’s always going to be government deciding what’s in society’s best interests.

    1. Don’t forget the most important can’t. You can’t opt out. Freedom!

  6. The president promises penalties he has no power to impose…

    “Save it for 4/9 of the Supreme Court.”

    It really doesn’t matter if he has the authority to impose penalties on Twatter or anyone else, he’ll still claim he does and try it, leaving it to the courts to figure it out. And even if Twatter wins in court they still lose. “The process is the punishment” and all that.

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