Trump’s North Korea tweets are a frightening violation of Twitter’s rules. Why won’t the social-media giant take any action against him?
Another day, another escalation in the threat of nuclear war thanks to the tweets of the President of the United States. Yesterday, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said lines of communication were open with North Korea, Donald Trump tweeted “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” and “…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
The tirade came on the heels of North Korea saying Trump’s digital nosebleeds — otherwise known as tweets — constituted a declaration of war. During what was supposed to be international diplomacy discussions at United Nations meetings last week, The Art of the Deal’s author tweeted:
“Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of [Kim Jong Un], they won’t be around much longer!”
In response, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Ying Ho retorted:
“For the past couple of days, we had earnestly hoped that the war of words between North Korea and the U.S. would not lead to action… However, [the President of America and infamous game show host] had ultimately declared war again last weekend, by saying regarding our leadership, that he will make it unable to last longer.”
It’s not a stretch to see the words of the renowned WWE Hall of Famer turned 45th POTUS as inconsistent and antagonistic to diplomacy. Trump’s clearly proposing bringing harm to millions of innocent people should certain conditions arise.
If something terrible happens, blood will obviously be on Trump’s tweeting hands. But it will also be on Twitter itself.
The platform the Commander in Chief uses to “communicate” with the world is not owned by Trump or his administration. It’s run by a private company, which has its own Terms and Conditions, concerning what content may and may not be allowed on. Trump’s violation of these terms is flagrant. In fact, one of Twitter’s rules plainly states:
“Violent threats (direct or indirect): You may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.”
If threatening to wipe a country off the map, with the power to do so from behind the Resolute Desk, is not sufficient to constitute a threat of violence, I don’t know what is.
There’s also a clear precedent for the company to take action against those who violate its rules. To cite but a few examples, Twitter has, in the past, axed blogger and terrible person Chuck Johnson; an attention-seeking blowhard who consistently used his army of racist followers to threaten actor Leslie Jones; and the recently convicted Martin Shkreli after he harassed a columnist.
So why not punish Trump?
According to Twitter, it’s staying mum because Trump’s tweets are “newsworthy.” When Twitter was slammed for not taking down Trump’s “they won’t be around much longer” tweet, it issued a barrage of threaded tweets which stated:
“We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether Tweets violate our Rules. Among the considerations is ‘newsworthiness’ and whether a Tweet is of public interest. This has long been internal policy and we’ll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it. We need to do better on this, and will. Twitter is committed to transparency and keeping people informed about what’s happening in the world. We’ll continue to be guided by these fundamental principles.”
It’s obviously true that Trump is highly newsworthy. But this fact is descriptive and objective, not moral. Stating that something is seen and of interest to many no more tells you that it should be published than if you said it is written in English. So what if it’s “newsworthy,” when it’s also blatantly dangerous?
Tellingly, Twitter contradicts itself in the first two sentences of its statement. How can you hold “all accounts to the same Rules,” then adjust because an account is popular and the tweets get more coverage? That’s not equal application in any sense of the term equal. (As Wired put it in a recent excellent piece on this matter, litigating Trump’s specific violations “requires pretending that Twitter actually intends to apply its rules to all of its users equally.”)
Furthermore, a threat from a man with the U.S. army, a nuclear arsenal, and a notoriously obsessive and hateful fanbase poses far greater harm than some anonymous anime avatar. Indeed, if there is adjustment of the rules, surely they should be adjusted to give less, not more, leeway to the president of a powerful, armed country — a man whose relationship with words is akin to arson?
As to Twitter’s claim about public interest: If it really cares about public interest, then may I suggest the interest of not being destroyed because of hypersensitive men armed with nukes?
Many might shrug at this whole exchange since it’s “only Twitter.” But first, note that the Foreign Minister of North Korea responded to the media. And second, at the very least consider how powerful people have and are forced to respond to Trump’s tweets on a regular basis: to clarify, argue, respond, and so on, on the international stage.
A threat from a man with a nuclear arsenal poses far greater harm than some anonymous anime avatar. Click To Tweet
The President of a very powerful country flips markets, conveys orders and policies, and issues statements that have to be responded to by other leaders, generals, and ministers — foreign and domestic. To brush off tweets as merely contained to the internet is no different than dismissing writing on paper because it is contained to the literate. Those who can see it can and do respond.
On these grounds, Twitter should grow a spine and remove this lovechild of white resentment and unfettered opulence. But since it probably won’t, clinging as it is to the defense of “newsworthiness,” might it at least consider another course of action? What if it simply removed Trump’s verified status?
Twitter has done this before, as an apparent way to punish offenders. Verified status is merely meant to indicate you are who you say you are — but it also confers other benefits, such as conveying authority to other users, access to analytics, and so on. Removing the tick means removing those benefits, while showing strongly that Twitter disapproves of this menace using its platform to further his harmful agenda. Such a move would be similar to Congressional censure, which Congress implemented to allow for something “stronger than a simple rebuke, but not as strong as expulsion.”
Pending this move, Twitter at least owes us more transparency about which rules apply to us mortals, and which apply to those with actual power and the magical “newsworthiness” it appears to crave.
While we’re at it, perhaps Facebook can clarify how its ethical obligations align with a need to be “newsworthy.” Mark Zuckerberg has made similar noises about Facebook being a platform to give “all people a voice,” ignoring the dangers of publishing certain content on the grounds that it may be of interest to some.
And herein lies the ultimate rub. When social-media sites crow about “newsworthiness,” they’re really just saying “because it’s good for business.” Beyond Trump’s tweets generating ample attention and interest, Twitter may be afraid to ban the country’s most powerful Republican, as it could lead to a mass exodus of conservative users who contribute to the company’s bottom line. In light of Twitter’s attempts to stay relevant as a business in the face of stagnant growth, this imperative is particularly pronounced. Ditto Facebook, which has profited handsomely off of providing a platform to vile beliefs.
And so we’re back where we started — with Trump able to tweet out whatever he wants, potentially nuclear consequences be damned. If the threats become something more, Twitter and Facebook should be prepared to ask themselves: Was it worth it?