By: Alex Falck
According to Twitter’s Rules,
“You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an inpidual or group of people.”
Last December, the company enforced this policy against several high-profile accounts, including the leaders of the far-right Britain First party.
That put the social media company in an apparent bind when President Trump tweeted about the size and functionality of his “Nuclear Button.” Even more troubling, Trump was apparently not responding directly to Kim Jong Un’s incendiary New Year’s Address, but to a Fox News segment on the same. It’s not the first time that Trump has used Twitter to threaten North Korea, either.
Responding to calls for Trump’s account to be suspended, Twitter declined, saying,
“Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
Even if Twitter had chosen not to carve out a “Trump Exception,” the president’s tweet may not have been subject to the anti-violence policy, since it explicitly excludes “vague threats” and tweets by “government entities.”
Policing speech on Twitter — as in other arenas — is a tricky business. When the right to free speech is absolute, some people will use their speech to silence others. Comedian Leslie Jones, for instance, famously shut down her Twitter account after becoming the subject of a vicious harassment campaign led by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. Twitter, in turn, imposed a permanent ban on Yiannopolous. The company seemed to be taking a sensible stand on the limits of free speech.
When users aren’t high-profile celebrities, though, the rules aren’t enforced so consistently. Openly transgender Twitter users are notoriously subject to harassment with little recourse, and political conservatives have also complained of unchecked abuse. In a perfect confirmation of Poe’s Law, however, Twitter did suspend the account of German satirical magazine Titanic for 48 hours after they parodied a far-right politician. Logistically, it’s difficult to monitor the 350,000 Tweets sent every minute, and as long as most of its users remain on the platform, the company has little incentive to restrain them.
So, where does that leave us? While it’s true that Trump is famous for his rude and incendiary Tweets, many of his most alarming statements aren’t even on Twitter. It was in front of reporters that he said, “it is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write,” and his most openly racist comments were allegedly made in a staff meeting. While Trump’s nuclear comments are alarming, “mine is bigger than yours” has been the U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy since the start of the Cold War. “Trump was stating, in the crudest possible form, what U.S. officials have said for decades,” says the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman. Taking away Trump’s Twitter account wouldn’t negate the fact that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons program, or that the Trump has the power to enact nuclear warfare on a whim.
Indeed, by making impulsive statements on such a public platform, Trump has arguably become his own worst enemy. Spurred by earlier comments, Democrats introduced a bill last year that would curb the President’s ability to use nuclear weapons, and Trump’s Islamaphobic Tweets were brought up in court as evidence that his travel ban was illegally discriminatory. His ban on transgender military personnel — reportedly announced after just 10 minutes of discussion — proved indefensible, a waste of the administration’s time and effort. Trump’s tweets can be alarming, offensive, and infuriating, and that’s exactly why they should remain in full view of the public.
Alex Falck is a Teen Services Librarian at the Chicago Public Library and volunteer librarian at Brave Space Alliance, an organization focused on the needs of trans people of color. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.