When President Donald Trump felt the need to lash out at Twitter on Tuesday, he didn’t turn to Facebook or YouTube. He turned to Twitter.
The president has launched any number of insults, tirades and misleading statements from his Twitter account in recent years. But it was two tweets about voting by mail that spurred the company to take action, adding a fact check label to them.
The president fired back, tweeting that the company was “stifling FREE SPEECH” by fact checking his tweets about mail-in ballots.
But Trump’s choice of Twitter as the best platform from which to attack Twitter highlights the singular appeal of the platform. As much as the president may be angry with the company, there’s nothing quite like the real-time global broadcasting apparatus of Twitter, as well as the network of accounts that have been built up in recent years that amplify his statements.
And Twitter has shown a willingness to let Trump test its rules — including the president’s most recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
“Twitter’s really the perfect platform for him,” said Vivian Schiller, executive director of Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute. Schiller, the former chief digital officer of NBC News, is a former employee of Twitter.
“Obviously it doesn’t have the reach that Facebook does,” she said. “But it has all the people who will amplify his message, be it the media or bots or other government officials.”
Just as Twitter has been opposed to booting Trump over possible violations of its terms of service, Trump may find it difficult or impossible to divorce himself from the platform that greased his path into politics.
In the hours after the conflict erupted Tuesday between Trump and Twitter, some conservatives lamented that there was no way the president could win despite his pledge that he wouldn’t allow Twitter to fact check him.
“Will Trump beat Twitter?” asked Ali Akbar, a conservative activist who also goes by the name Ali Alexander, from whom Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has sought advice.
“The answer is hell no. It’s too late for spilled milk,” he said. “This issue has been completely mismanaged by both the campaign and the White House, and everyone sees he’s a paper tiger” — as in someone who makes threats but doesn’t follow through.
Trump and fellow Republicans have options to exert leverage over Twitter. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Twitter that if the service is going to “exercise an editorial role,” it should lose the special protection that it and other internet companies enjoy from defamation suits. (The Communications Decency Act of 1996, often misunderstood, was written specifically so tech companies could exercise editorial judgment.)
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Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,” an indication that the president may be able to use Twitter’s fact checking efforts to ramp up accusations of bias against tech companies.
“We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen,” Trump added, although it’s unclear under what authority the government could do so.
It’s far from the first time politicians have sought to put pressure on tech companies over efforts to rein in misinformation.
In 2018, lawmakers called Dorsey in front of a congressional hearing to answer questions about how Twitter approached censorship, among other subjects. Dorsey at the time pledged to take a light touch on most subjects people tweet about.
If the president wants to escalate the feud, he has few legal options, experts said.
“I can’t think of any legit legal paths available here,” said Chip Stewart, a professor of journalism at Texas Christian University. “The First Amendment simply bars the government from compelling a private company’s speech. That would literally be the censorship Trump complains is instead happening to him.”
Aside from extracting further promises or making regulatory threats, the only leverage Trump has may be his presence. And he might not enjoy Facebooking, Instagramming or YouTubing as much as he does tweeting.
The president has a prodigious Facebook audience, and even though the social network is much larger than Twitter and an important part of Trump’s re-election campaign, it doesn’t offer him the same instantaneous feedback of Twitter because its news feed is based on a complicated algorithm.
Similarly, Instagram and Snapchat aren’t designed for the kind of text-heavy messages that dominate Twitter and characterize Trump’s announcements. YouTube requires much more camera time without the benefit of instant sharing. TikTok is also video-based and comes with rising Republican concern about its ties to China, while fringe tech startups like Gab are relatively small. Using the app Nextdoor would limit the president’s reach to the neighborhoods surrounding his home.
Twitter, likewise, has repeatedly said it doesn’t intend to remove Trump from the service, perhaps no matter what he says. It has also given him leeway with what he tweets.
“We believe it’s important that the world sees how global leaders think and how they act,” Dorsey told HuffPost last year.
But now the service, by fact checking Trump for the first time, has also drawn a line in the sand — and the conflict may keep ratcheting up.
“The fact that they’ve now applied a fact checking notice to his tweets about voting means it’s going to be very hard for them not to keep labeling tweets,” said Schiller of the Aspen Institute. “They just made life much harder for themselves, honestly. I think it’s absolutely the right decision, but it’s now much trickier.”