Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our coverage of all things media and messaging.
Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.
President Trump has been known to blow past the boundaries of what was once considered acceptable political behavior, and nowhere more so than on Twitter.
In recent weeks, he’s been spouting false conspiracy theories about a young woman who died in 2001, tweeting out debunked claims that she was killed by the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who was her boss at the time. Today, Kara Swisher, who’s a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, broke the news that the woman’s husband had asked Twitter to take down the president’s tweets on the matter. Twitter said no.
The column generated a wide-ranging discussion (on Twitter!) about the president’s favorite political weapon — his @realDonaldTrump account — and the free speech protections afforded to social media users.
To make sense of it all, I gave Ms. Swisher a call. (After we spoke, Twitter added a fact check label on a tweet from Mr. Trump about voter fraud, the first time the platform has taken such a step on the president’s account. That development isn’t reflected in our talk.)
Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Hi Kara, that was a heck of a column. I’ll get right to it. Twitter has had no problem removing average users who perpetuate disinformation, but heads of state seem to really pose a problem for them. Do you think there will ever be a breaking point?
They do take down elected officials’ tweets, even though say they will keep up newsworthy stuff. [President Jair] Bolsonaro [of Brazil], they took down his tweets about health care. They’ve taken down Christine Pelosi [Nancy Pelosi’s daughter] when she was tweeting about the Rand Paul incident because it was violent. Roger Stone got several things taken down. Alex Jones was kicked off. They do it all the time. And they do it to famous people, they do it to quote-unquote newsworthy people. They just don’t do it for Trump. And I understand he’s like the third rail here. But it is a true exception. He could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and they still wouldn’t do something.
Has he inspired any political copycats?
I think Matt Gaetz [the Republican congressman from Florida] tries to be him. There’s a ton of people who try, but he’s the one who tries the hardest, but he’s so profoundly bad at it that it doesn’t work. But I’ve written lots of columns where I called Trump the greatest Twitter troll in history. He really is good at what he does, it just happens to be that much of what he does is vile. But he’s good at it. There’s no question that he’s talented at abusing the platform.
But that’s the way the platform is designed. It’s designed for people who want to be — you know, I hate to use this term — viral. Engagement and enragement are very closely linked on the platform and a lot of social media. If you design it that way, you’re going to get people like Donald Trump who game the system.
But honestly, without Twitter, he’s a lot less than he is. It doesn’t work on Facebook. There’s no other place. He can make his own platform, but no one is going to go there. This is the perfect amalgamation of the media, of political people, this is the perfect place for him to pull this scheme off. So it’s up to Twitter to do something about it.
I don’t think they should ban him, and I’ve talked about that before. I think they should just be taking down certain tweets and doing one-offs and making an example of it. And by the way, the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law” — not Twitter shall make no law. Twitter can make as many laws as it wants. It is a private platform, even though it seems like the public square.
Has Trump taken this to its apex?
Well, not yet. What if he loses the election, and on the very next day, he says all people who are with me, rise up with your guns and fight? What would Twitter do? Is that newsworthy? It certainly is. But it’s also violent. So what are they going to do?
There’s going to be a moment where he will do something, but when’s the moment? When is it going to happen? I don’t know.
One way to solve this could be an independent content board. It gets these thorny questions off their hands that maybe shouldn’t be left alone to one C.E.O. Maybe we should just acknowledge this is like a public square and create a public board for things like this.
This idea of labeling is interesting, but it certainly doesn’t solve the problem. But what you can do is take a tweet down and say if you do it again, we’re going to take it down again, and then keep doing it. That’s called enforcement. And it’s OK to do that. If Donald Trump doesn’t get to impugn the memory of a dead woman in a really vile way, I think we can all live with it.
I wanted to highlight this widower’s letter because I think it is emotional and I want people to react to it emotionally. Because it’s really important to think about this in a real world and how it affects people. I don’t suspect Twitter is going to do anything, but I’m glad they finally reacted today after my column. They had this letter sent on Thursday and they certainly have known about these tweets.
It’s a beautifully written letter, really making an excellent case for removing tweets about his wife who tragically died in an accident. The tweets have become a political bullet aimed at Joe Scarborough but hitting this widower.
How do you think being in an election year has changed Twitter’s thinking?
Well, Trump’s been doing this for years. So it’s for Twitter to deal with an ongoing problem. It will get worse as the polling is bad for him.
Do you think that the path is being made for another @realDonaldTrump on Twitter in the future?
So far, no. I mean, of course, I think the danger is a Donald Trump who is a little smarter. He’s kind of sloppy and mean. But you see it across the world. [President Rodrigo] Duterte [of the Philippines] uses Facebook quite a lot. So, there’s a lot happening, we just don’t live there.
I do think that it is happening already and people who have bad intentions have been gaming the system for a while — we just haven’t seen it as much here.
There is a hands-off approach at Twitter. Maybe when they take time to think about it, and about what they want their legacy to be and what they want the platform to be, they can just do a little better. I’m not asking to take Trump off of it. I’m not asking anything except let’s think about this really hard — and perhaps removing one tweet might be a step in the right direction.
Drop us a line!
We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading. On Politics is your guide to the political news cycle, delivering clarity from the chaos.
On Politics is also available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com.