Twitter’s moves to label or hide comments from US President Donald Trump have escalated a feud between the social network and the White House, but there could be more to come.
The messaging platform has a range of “enforcement” options for dealing with content in violation of its policies, each of which carries its own potential risks and costs.
“Twitter has shown a newfound willingness to enforce its policies,” said Daniel Kreiss, a University of North Carolina professor specialising in politics and social media.
“If you’re a private company you have a right to regulate content, and it behooves those companies to enforce these policies in a fair and transparent and publicly justifiable way. I think Twitter will do this in a consistent way.”
While Twitter could have acted before on Trump’s tweets, “I think there has been a gradual shift in thinking at Twitter inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, and its thinking about misinformation that is harmful,” said Tiffany Li, a fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project who specialises in social media.
One option would be to “downrank” or limit the visibility of a tweet, or to remove it.
But Twitter’s policies also include a “public interest” exception which would require leaving a tweet online but with the possibility of blocking “engagements” such as retweets and likes.
Kreiss said that because of Trump’s importance as a public figure, “I don’t think you’ll see a takedown” of his tweets but “you might see actions preventing these things from being amplified.”
Twitter’s guidelines note that “world leaders are not above our policies entirely” and that the platform reserves the right to remove tweets that promote terrorism, violence or self-harm, or includes private information about another person.
Most drastic steps
Twitter’s policies say the company may suspend or delete an account for repeated violations.
Some of Trump’s critics have called for him to be “de-platformed” for his conduct, but such a move could create a political firestorm by acting against a leader with 80 million followers.
“They’re not going to want to put themselves out on a limb,” said Steven Livingston, director of the George Washington University Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics.
At the same time, Livingston said, Twitter may be making a calculation that it can withstand the pressure as Trump moves further to the extreme.
“The smart people at Twitter are going to want to test the waters to determine if are they putting themselves at political risk by standing up to Trump,” he said.
Cost, and benefits
Twitter has already triggered the wrath of Trump, who two days after tweets of his on mail-in voting were tagged as misleading, signed an executive order which could lead to tighter oversight of social media platforms. There are doubts about the order’s legality, however.
The San Francisco company carefully weighed its decision this week before labelling Trump’s tweets for the first time, according to the news platform OneZero’s account of deliberations.
“The company needed to do what’s right, and we knew from a comms perspective that all hell would break loose,” spokesman Brandon Borrman told OneZero.
Twitter drew an intense backlash not only from the president but from “the internet mob” which directed anger at a specific company executive, according to Li.
“This is troublesome because while Twitter as a company is a relatively strong entity, an individual is more vulnerable,” she said.
The dramatic clash between Trump and Twitter may have consequences for both, but both sides may also end up benefiting, according to Kreiss.
“I don’t think Trump is going to leave Twitter because this is how he uses it to communicate,” Kreiss said.
The conflict “sets up a foil for him and helps him mobilise his base,” the researcher said.
“Ironically this is good for Twitter too because it now makes it the centre of fundamental debate going into the 2020 election, and it will increase use of the platform.”
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