President Donald Trump has found himself in a serious dispute with Twitter. Yesterday, the online service flagged the president’s tweets as misleading for the first time – an affront to Trump, who is now threatening to penalize the social media company via an executive order.
The conflict between Trump and Twitter transpired after the social media monolith recently marked two of the president’s tweets as misleading in terms of content and also linked a fact check attached to another of Trump’s tweets.
The debate was initiated by Trump’s tweets in which he commented on alleged fraud on a significant scale that would inevitably take place via mail-in ballots if they were used for the upcoming presidential elections. Twitter dismissed Trump’s claim as “false and unfounded.”
Moreover, Trump’s tweets about alleged fraud “contain potentially misleading information about electoral processes,” Twitter stated. As a result, the president’s tweets were marked and supplemented by additional context about mail-in ballot voting. A link also appeared underneath the tweets appeared, stating “get the facts about mail-in ballots.” The link leads to a Twitter page with a critical review of the statements and news articles about Trump’s unsubstantiated claims.
Trump’s Mail-in Ballot Rant
Previously, Trump had already argued that California’s planned mail-in ballot options would result in a “rigged election”. Ballots would be stolen, forged, “illegally printed” and “fraudulently filled in,” he warned – all without providing any substantial evidence.
Trump’s response today did not come as a surprise. He reacted angrily and accused Twitter of interfering in the upcoming presidential election in November. On this basis, he even threatened to shut down the service. According to Trump, Twitter’s fact check was “completely stifling free speech” which he would not permit, the president wrote – ironically via Twitter.
Earlier on May 28, Trump doubled down on his threat by claiming that social media platforms sought to completely silence the voices of the conservatives while progressive opinions were not only tolerated but promoted. Trump’s answer to the perceived bias would amount in either “strong regulation” or even the end of Twitter, he wrote.
“This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!” Trump added in a tweet on May 28.
Trump’s Tweet Power
Twitter has been the president’s weapon of choice to communicate his thoughts and plans. It has allowed him to address millions of Americans directly – without a media apparatus spinning any of his statements. However, Trump also has a history of utilizing Twitter to slander opponents, spread conspiracy theories, and praise his own record disproportionately – including substantial degrees of distortion and an utter disregard for facts.
Twitter only tightened its rules of conduct in March – mainly due to the increase of fake news during the COVID-19 outbreak. The service has long faced criticism over not acting against Trump’s false, misleading or offensive tweets. On May 11, the company stated in a blog post that it wanted to expand the range of topics for warnings, but without specifying what it could mean. It is thus quite possible that the warnings under Trump’s tweets are an expression of these new rules.
Twitter’s Relationship With the Truth
So far, Twitter has granted Trump and other democratically elected leaders with a dubious relationship to the truth carte blanche. On Tuesday Twitter refused to delete an amazingly appalling Trump tweet, in which the president of the United States accused the well-known presenter of the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” and former Congressman Joe Scarborough to have murdered a former employee. In a recent letter, the late woman’s widower urged Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to remove the tweets, saying they were deeply traumatic to him and encouraged an entirely false conspiracy theory. Twitter refused.
While fact-checking remains a topic in and of itself, Twitter, as a business, has undoubtedly the right to utilize the option of restraining anyone, even a sitting president. The question now is how far is Twitter is prepared to advance? Will the same rules apply to everyone? Who checks the fact-checkers? Would Twitter even go as far as suspending Trump’s account?
Potential Backlash from Cracking Down on Trump
The narrative about progressive Silicon Valley trying to silence the right has been pushed among conservative – and fringe elements disguised as conservatives – for a long time. And yet, Twitter is unquestionably within its rights to administer any fact checks it deems appropriate.
Trump lacks the power to shut down Twitter – after all, this is not the USSR – but further restrictions from Twitter could be detrimental and counterproductive for his reelection bid. After all, eighty million people are following the president. A staggering figure that cannot simply be transferred to another service.
Trump is cognizant of the latter. Moreover, he is conscious that, at this point, his supporters are essentially his base. It is a base that has exhibited an impressive proclivity for being utterly impervious to any facts and criticism of their president. A Twitter fake check will hardly overcome this. Nonetheless, the irony of Donald Trump – an avatar for the free market system and American capitalism – now considering himself the latest victim of a free market business model named Twitter should not go unnoticed in the debate.