The US president is reportedly worth $2bn to the social networking service. So is that why hes able to continually breach its terms of service with impunity?
Imagine, for a moment, that the tweeting president fell silent. That the wings were clipped. Imagine that threats of nuclear war were no longer casually tossed off from a roguethumb.
Trump sent 1,002 tweets in his first six months in office (perhaps slightly more times than hes played golf, but not by much). Thats in addition to the 8,144 tweets he sent during his campaign. Obama was known as the Facebook President and Trump has become the first Twitter President. But while Obamas e-lection was down to his social media as a campaigning and grassroots funding tool, helped along by Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, Trumps attachment to Twitter is much more personal. After all, despite Facebooks role in Obamas victory, he didnt have his own Facebook page until 2015.
Trump occasionally uses Twitter in a constructive way (to announce policies), but more often he tweets like a petty, pugilistic teen or a troll. Twitter, of course, is notorious for not dealing with abuse well. Its why former CEO Dick Costolo told employees he was frankly ashamed at how the company sucked at dealing with abuse. Its why companies such as Disney backed away from a buyout. Its partly why a select committee addressed the issue in the UK and Yvette Cooper set up the Reclaim the Internet campaign. Its why users have often staged protests or left altogether (hi, Ed Sheeran). The company is on the defensive, with co-founder Biz Stone tweeting: Yall pile on us. You really think the issue doesnt weigh on us? And youre so dismissive of the Trust and Safety team. Were all people.
The platforms terms of service reference a wide variety of offences, but these are applied haphazardly. For a company obsessed with doing better at transparency, seemingly releasing a statement to this effect each month, its decisions are nearly always opaque. Inquiries usually elicit the standard response that the company does not comment on individual cases.
Frequently, instances of misogynistic, racist, antisemitic abuse are kept online, even after these blatant breaches of terms of service have been reported. High-profile individuals with track records of abusive use have been suspended or banned only after sustained pressure (for instance, rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after his sustained hate campaign against the actor Leslie Jones; rapper Azealia Banks, who spouted racist venom at pop singer Zayn Malik).
It is clear that Trump breaks a number of terms as defined in the small print: abusive tweets (including other users handles); threatening tweets; retweeting antisemitic memes. But its a pie-in-the-sky idea that Trump would ever be banned, right? The explanation Twitter gives for not banning him is that his tweets fall under newsworthiness, a defence that wasnt afforded actor Rose McGowan, who was suspended for doxing the practice of broadcasting private information while leading a worldwide conversation on sexual abuse. The Weinstein story, of course, is the biggest of the past month wouldnt removing the tweet have been sufficient? Twitter wants it both ways: to be viewed as a tech company and not a media company, but maintaining that newsworthiness is a core part of its service. If that is the case, then it should be taking proper editorial decisions and adopting the responsibilities ofapublisher.
What if Twitter did the brave, unthinkable thing: took a stand and banned Trump? Impossible? Well, Silicon Valley has opposed the mogul in other ways. A trio of Facebook, Google and Microsoft CEOs all criticised Trumps decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Intel, Under Armour, Uber and SpaceX representatives (including Elon Musk) stood down from Trumps tech council. In fact, so many company representatives left from Trumps economic advisory council that he had to disband it. But the problem for Twitter, without stating the obvious, is that Trump is the most powerful man in the world pissing him off probably isnt a great idea. But theres a second reason Twitter might need Trump. The president has helped increase engagement on the platform and added value to the brand.
Yet Trump hasnt done much to increase the number of users (people dont need to sign up to Twitter when media outlets report his every tweet). Hes has added just 2 million daily active users to Twitter (though 72 million to Facebook), and even that effect has levelled off. But Forbes still estimates that he is worth around $2bn to the company, precisely because news outlets pick up his tweets and increase brand-name recognition. But might it be the case that in taking such a monumental stand to ban him, the entire world would reward the company?
On the one hand, I cant imagine better PR, but thats from the perspective of a liberal journalist. Twitter presumably has one eye on its growing rightwing base (though not when it comes to ignoring neo-Nazi invective). Despite the fact that, as a private company, Twitter is under no obligation to protect Trumps first amendment rights, one can imagine the alt-right uproar. But detoxifying the platform is clearly something that users want to happen (unlike the unwanted changes Twitter pushes on us all the time), and would have the added benefit of appealing to advertisers put off by its toxic reputation. Suppose it did happen, what would Trump do? Finally get his press conferences in order? Spend more time on Instagram and sending snaps (his digital operation uses both platforms, headed up by digital director Brad Parscale)? Would Jared Kushner call in Silicon Valley favours from his tech bro pals who helped teach him how to harness social media most effectively? Would the billionaire Mercers behind Cambridge Analytica set up an entirely new platform? Trumps probably not going to set up a Tumblr account and fill it with pictures of cats in Make America Great Again caps. Or would he just start endlessly texting Fox News reporters to get his message out there? One wags solution was for Twitter to not ban but just mute Trump, so he tweeted forever into an abyss, and the rest of us could live in peace.
Of course, the idea that one of the biggest companies in the world would ban one of the most important people in the world is unprecedented. But so much of what Trump does and how he behaves is unprecedented. We are living in bizarre times indeed. Thats why it is not hyperbole to write that in banning Trump, Twitter would be changing the world. And isnt that what tech is supposed to be all aboutdisruption?