Twitter’s Least-Bad Option for Dealing With Donald Trump
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump began his day as he usually does—by tweeting.
In this case, Trump fired off a threat of using “serious force” against hypothetical protesters setting up an “autonomous zone” in Washington, D.C. Twitter, in response, hid the tweet but did not delete it, requiring readers to click through a notice that says the tweet violated the platform’s policy “against abusive behavior, specifically, the presence of a threat of harm against an identifiable group.”
Twitter’s placement of such a “public interest notice” on a tweet from the president of the United States was just the latest salvo in the company’s struggle to contend with Trump’s gleefully out-of-bounds behavior. But any response from Twitter is going to be the least bad option rather than a genuinely good one. This is because Trump himself has demolished the norms that would make a genuinely good response possible in the first place.
The truth is that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable. Although we don’t have consensus about what we want, no one would ask for what we currently have: a world in which two unelected entrepreneurs are in a position to monitor billions of expressions a day, serve as arbiters of truth, and decide what messages are amplified or demoted. This is the power that Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have, and they may well experience their own discomfort with it. Nor, though, would many of us wish for such powerful people to stand idly by when, at no risk to themselves, they could intervene to prevent misery and violence in the physical world, by, say, helping to counter dangerous misinformation or preventing the incitement of violence.
[ Read: How Facebook works for Trump ]
Many American institutions that broadly serve the public ask the people who work within them to separate their own opinions from their work, in the name of serving a larger professional cause, or representing and accommodating people who might disagree with them personally. This is certainly the case across the military, the media, and even Wikipedia, and it’s likewise the general position espoused by social-media giants such as Twitter and Facebook. Historically, it has also been the stance of one of the country’s core institutions: the presidency. The president has long been expected—by the public, and by the Constitution—to act in America’s best interest, not his or her own narrow ones.
But Trump appears unable to conceive of a national interest apart from his personal ones. He not only fails in this regard, but does so utterly and unapologetically . His actions have abused the baseline deference and respect typically accorded the platform of the presidency by adjacent public and private institutions. As a result, any norms attempting to separate institutions from the personal inclinations of its members have been stretched or dispensed with. And that...