Twitter should ban Donald Trump


I live about a mile north of the Capitol in Washington, DC. My wife’s workplace is a few hundred yards from the White House. Our seven month old daughter’s daycare is a few hundred yards past that. I wouldn’t say I was ever in favor of goading a foreign power into launching a nuclear attack on DC. But these facts have made me downright humorless about it.

Sometimes I talk about this danger with friends. I think we all have the same dream of vaporization, borrowed from movies and cartoons. A rising sun, growing brightness, and then disintegration, oblivion. Maybe even catharsis. Not so bad. But that’s just the movies:

Many hibakusha say that straight after the bomb, people tried to get away in the oppositedirection from where the bomb had exploded (the hypocenter); people near Hiroshima Station escaped to the east or to the north, those near Yokogawa Station to the north, those around Hijiyama Hill to the south or to the east. There were, of course, some people who were going against the flow because of their families or jobs.

There were still other people who were coming into Hiroshima from the surrounding communities to help with the rescue work. The Army Marine Transport stationed near Hiroshima Port at Ujina dispatched soldiers from its unit called the “Akatsuki Corps” to the city center to be engaged in the rescue effort.

They saw hideously disfigured corpses which could not be identified; schoolgirls who were desperate for water jumping into the river; people walking about like zombies, with burned and peeled-off skin hanging from their bodies; a boy trying to save his groaning mother who was trapped under fallen walls. Fire was approaching. A man was beating his dying daughter hard with a piece of wooden board, saying, “Your pain will be over soon.” It was hell all around.

Flames and screams filled the city, where refugees and rescue teams were going to and fro. Hanging over them was another evil of the atomic bomb: residual radiation.

Of course a contemporary bomb would be much larger. Maybe there would be less pain. I can’t really understand what the father in the passage above did–though I suppose he knew some things that I don’t, and desperately hope never to learn. It’s hard to even picture: when I think about this I don’t imagine being close enough to face this catastrophe with my family–surely it would all happen too fast. But I can imagine my daughter under the rubble of her daycare, crying for her mama, and me, and milk, until she can’t anymore. I can see that very clearly.

The President has brought this vision closer to reality, and he’s done it with his Twitter account. I don’t think many intelligent people deny this.

So why does Twitter fail to ban or censor him? To do whatever small thing they can to make this future less likely? In my high school’s debate club, nuclear war was the cataclysm used to justify all manner of implausibly connected policies. Debate is pretty silly: it rewards you for twisting arguments to end in any consequence you choose. We picked nuclear war because we couldn’t imagine a more compelling justification for a decision. Why does Twitter not act?

There have been some essays written about this, both by former Twitter personnel and by outsiders. Twitter has also released a statement. These contain a number of arguments against censoring the President.

All of these pieces contain an argument about the newsworthiness of the President’s tweets. The idea that notoriety constitutes an ethical justification is so childish–literally childish, they teach kids not to do it–that I don’t intend to waste any time discussing it.

But there are other rationales in these accounts which are more interesting.

Applying inconsistent standards to the world’s most famous Twitter user could prompt others to question the reliability of the service as a platform for expression. This makes sense in the abstract, but not in practice. Twitter is already well-known for applying its rules inconsistently and for revising them frequently.

When I was at the Sunlight Foundation, we adopted a project called Politwoops, which was originally created by a clever fellow named Breyten Ernsting. He brought it to us because he thought our profile might afford it some protection: Politwoops was clearly not allowed by the Twitter terms of service, and he was worried about being shut down.

When a tweet is deleted, a signal is sent through the Twitter service. It’s just like a normal tweet, but invisible. Twitter clients must receive and act upon this signal, deleting the indicated tweets. If they do not, Twitter turns off the credentials that the clients must use to access the service and bans the developers from getting new ones. Breyten had escaped Twitter’s attention so far, but he knew his luck would eventually run out.

We turned on the site, issued a press release, and soon received a call from Twitter’s lawyers. They understood our argument–which, ha, was about newsworthiness. (In our defense, none of the tweets we tracked seemed likely to start a nuclear war.) But yes, we said that tweets from public officials were public statements and the public deserved to have them preserved in the way that other records would be. Twitter’s lawyers wouldn’t say so but they clearly thought our project was sort of neat and didn’t want the bad press that shutting down a government transparency effort would attract. But they weren’t going to rewrite their terms for us. Eventually they seized upon a line in the terms about automation that was related to the thing we were doing that we weren’t supposed to do. “What if we made poor Nicko review the tweets manually each day? It wouldn’t be automated!” This, their lawyers said, might be acceptable. They would get back to us. Then they stopped responding to our emails and calls. True to their almost-extant word, we were never sued.

Anyway don’t believe them if they say they have to follow their own rules. They don’t.

Say what you will about courting nuclear apocalypse, but it’s compelling content. Perhaps a small chance of ending human civilization looks okay when weighed against a slightly less-small chance of hitting Wall Street’s growth expectations. I don’t believe this one either, though. It’s too monstrous and the plausible upside too limited. Twitter obliquely disclaims this explanation when they say that “No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions,” and I believe them.

Of all the excuses in the articles linked above, the most persistent and galling is the idea that moderating the President’s tweeting would just send the messages and their effects elsewhere–that it “would also not silence that leader.” This only makes sense if you believe that the facts of Twitter’s medium have no influence on the messages it contains. But I don’t believe that, and Twitter certainly doesn’t. Go read any of their press materials. Go read their hand-wringing about the change to 280 characters and how they measured its effects on the messages people share. Twitter’s immediacy, its intimacy, its charm and depravity and childishness: so much flows from its brevity. Remove the network effects and that’s all there is left. It’s so simple. It used to even be beautiful.

The President’s statements are shaped by the medium he is using. If he did not have Twitter, he would still say unwise things–the man is clearly unfit for office by temperament, and suffering from some sort of progressive impairment as well. But without Twitter we and he would at least be spared his reflexive expressions, the dangerous wildness that springs from his fraying mind when nothing is around to distract, soothe or contain him. His insults would be revised, his outbursts delayed by more than just geriatric facility with a smartphone. It would be different and safer.

Twitter is run by sophisticated people. They probably understand social media better than the rest of us do. So I suspect they know that banning the President would assign them an indelible ideological code in our ceaseless tribal sorting. I think this is what they are desperate to avoid. This is why they don’t ban the President.

Quick: was the last pizza you ordered made by Democrats or Republicans? What about the last YouTube channel you watched? How about your coffee machine? No more fraternizing with the enemy: teammates and neutral parties only. Everyone knows that social media platforms are made by Democrats, but they aren’t necessarily for Democrats. Banning Trump would change this instantly. Twitter would be for the Blue Team, its repudiation a primetime pass-time for the Red. This would let us all have a lot of fun being angry, but it’s hard to imagine it being good for business. In fact it could be very, very bad. Twitter is a company that aspires to a level of ubiquity so complete that it thinks it should be streaming NFL games, for heaven’s sake. Writing broadcast license-sized checks to the NFL is surely a powerful remedy for indifference to Republicans’ feelings.

Matthew Ingram’s piece in CJR gestures at this dimension of Twitter’s calculus. He views it as a win for the alt-right, but it’s more important to understand it as a loss for Twitter. I think this is probably the reason for Twitter’s reticence, but even if one were to admit corporate self-preservation as an acceptable reason for failing to stop a war–an idea as morally obscene as it is plausible–it’s a bad decision. President Trump is unpopular, and his tweeting is very unpopular, even among his supporters. The number of Americans who would be genuinely upset by Twitter banning him would be small. Admittedly, the number who would enjoy pretending to be upset about it would plausibly be immense. But at some point you have to turn off cable news and hope that the distinction between the two still means something.

Besides, Twitter is already being inexorably forced toward its inevitable tribal affiliation. Users are not going to stop pointing out the indefensibility of its accommodation of white supremacists. Its heel-dragging reticence when asked to apply its stated standards accomplishes nothing. Pathetic imitators are springing up, unimportant as rivals but proof that the right is not soothed by the slow pace of enforcement. For everyone else, the presence of hate groups has become widely-known and infuriating. What are they hoping to achieve by delay? Some sort of deus ex machina, I suppose. An exogenous event that shifts the discourse. Nuclear detonations might fit the bill, but it’s hard to imagine what else could.

Here’s what is all but certain: there are people within Twitter who feel action should be taken and there are people who disagree. One side is winning. Both are archiving the other’s emails about this fight. And the balance can shift.

(Releasing those emails could shift the balance. Someone should do that.)

Twitter leadership should accept the fate before them. Donald Trump was great for you until he wasn’t. You know, you’re right: everything probably will be fine. But it might not. If it isn’t, history will eventually see those emails, and it will surely never forgive you. Your grandchildren will have to pick new names. Your company will be remembered as a sickness. There won’t just be blood on your hands, it will pour off you in sheets. Murky footsteps will trail you and crowds will part in disgust, clots falling from your lips as they form excuses and explanations. It will go like that until you die, which is when the people camped outside your house will finally erupt in cheers.

None of that is what you signed up for! Remember @dog_rates? Wasn’t that fun?

C’mon. It’s going to be an unpleasant couple of board meetings, I admit. But you’ve had those before. You’re still going to be quite rich, you know. You’ll probably get invited to some rather nice panels and dinner parties about this, too. It’s a shame, not to get to show the world what you could have done for NFL television delivery, if only you’d had the chance. But you’ll still get to raise your family, and maybe so will I.

About the author

Tom Lee
By Tom Lee