President Donald Trump has taken his “you’re fired” management approach to his relationship with social-media giant Twitter – a platform that helped him get elected in 2016.
Whether you are a user of Twitter or not, you should take an interest in how this battle plays out.
This controversy could negatively impact the president in ways the Russia election debate and his impeachment have not – his ability to communicate directly with his base on Twitter, a key focus of his political strategy.
Also at stake is the freedom social-media companies have to allow false or defamatory comments on their platforms without facing civil action.
Twitter recently began applying fact-check notations to tweets by elected or appointed public officials who it believes distort the truth in relation to topics of broad impact or interest. Trump has become a visible target.
Three key moments in this escalating feud:
• The husband of a woman who died in July 2001 in the congressional office of then-Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough appealed to Twitter last weekend to remove Trump tweets that claimed Scarborough murdered Lori Kaye Klausutis.
Foul play was not suspected in the death of Klausutis, who had a heart condition, according to media reports.
Husband Timothy J. Klausutis pointed to “a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died.”
Trump called Scarborough – now a frequent Trump critic on the network MSNBC – “a total nut job” and tweeted: “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.”
• Twitter on Tuesday flagged as inaccurate two of Trump’s tweets claiming abuses in the mail-in voting system in Michigan. Trump “called mail-in ballots ‘fraudulent’ and predicted that ‘mail boxes will be robbed,’ ” The Associated Press reported. Trump had previously deleted a tweet that falsely accused Michigan’s attorney general of sending out millions of absentee ballots ahead of the 2020 elections. The Michigan official countered that 7 million absentee ballot applications had been sent out – in response to Michigan voters’ approval of the easing of distance-voting rules in a 2018 statewide referendum.
Twitter said Trump’s tweets about distance voting – in wider use due to coronavirus concerns – “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”
• On Friday – the day after the president signed an executive order challenging the freedoms of social media platforms – Twitter flagged Trump’s tweets about protests and riots that broke out in Minneapolis in the wake of the death of a black man in police custody. That city fired four officers – including Derek Chauvin, shown in a widely viewed video kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, who was handcuffed and repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe.
The president called the Minneapolis rioters “THUGS” and added: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Twitter’s tag said the tweet “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”
Twitter said placing a tweet behind a fact-check notice “limits the ability to engage with the tweet through likes, retweets, or sharing on Twitter, and makes sure the tweet isn’t algorithmically recommended by Twitter. These actions are meant to limit the tweet’s reach while maintaining the public’s ability to view and discuss it.”
Trump countered the move by signing an executive order challenging protections that companies such as Facebook and Twitter have enjoyed.
Trump urged federal regulatory agencies – including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission – to place tougher guidelines on social media companies, which are protected from liability and responsibility in defamation cases because they are viewed as platforms rather than publishers.
He has challenged traditional news media with similar action, threatening to order his enforcement agencies or the Supreme Court to get tougher on outlets that provide what he and his administration might consider unfavorable coverage.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce objected quickly to the executive order, noting that it believes any change must be debated openly and then voted on by Congress. “Regardless of the circumstances that led up to this, this is not how public policy is made in the United States,” the chamber said.
Trump said of the major social-media companies: “They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.”
The irony is that Trump has benefited greatly from that “unchecked power” during his rise to political prominence and throughout his presidency. He has used the platform relentlessly for name-calling, the spreading of false information and dominating the discourse.
Trump has not been shy about dumping even close allies over perceived disloyalty to him or disagreement with his views and comments.
As of May 15, 86% of his “A Team” had turned over during his time in office – most not of their own choosing – according to The Brookings Institute.
But don’t be fooled. He has no interest in reducing his reach across Twitter. He needs the platform’s unfettered access to millions of eyeballs.
No matter how this battle plays out, that’s the truth.