On Thursday, the unthinkable happened: President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed went down.
For 11 minutes, @realdonaldtrump looked like this:
Twitter users, of course, responded snarkily to this temporary service disruption. “This is like when Lindbergh disappeared in The Plot Against America,” tweeted New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik.
A conspiracy theory or two even bloomed. “My guess: Trump’s lawyers told him to delete his account, because he is in serious legal jeopardy,” tweeted journalist David Klion.
Then, suddenly, the account was restored. Twitter confirmed that the outage had been caused by a rogue employee.
“Through our investigation we have learned that this was done by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day,” read a tweet from Twitter’s government handle. “We are conducting a full internal review.”
Trump responded to the outage Friday in the most Trumpian fashion. “My Twitter account was taken down for 11 minutes by a rogue employee,” he tweeted Friday morning. “I guess the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact.”
A single person who works for Twitter – and not even someone who works in and around their government arm – was able to take down the Twitter account of the President of the United States? Someone with more than 41 million followers who is, if I haven’t mentioned it, the President of the United States?
That’s concerning on a few levels:
1. How does Twitter not have a series of tripwires that keep any single person from wreaking this sort of havoc?
Getting rid of Trump’s email account for 11 minutes isn’t – in the grand scheme of things – all that big a deal. But what if someone found a way to take over Trump’s account and tweeted: “I’ve just OK’d a nuclear strike against North Korea?”
With any past president, a tweet like that would immediately be assumed as the result of some sort of hack. With Trump, who knows?
2. Trump was never going to get rid of his Twitter feed as President. He believes it is absolutely essential not only to his electoral success but to his ability to end-run the “fake news” media and push his message directly to his supporters. And he has used Twitter in office like no president before him (and maybe no president who comes after him will).
But this outage episode highlights the inherent dangers in using a platform you don’t control as your primary way of communicating not just your thoughts but actual policy pronouncements. If one customer service employee at Twitter can remove the account of the President of the United States for more than 10 minutes, how susceptible is Trump’s account to other sorts of pranks and hacks? The answer, it would seem, is “very.”
The Trump Twitter takedown comes on the same week that lawyers for the largest social media companies in the world were on Capitol Hill talking about their efforts to combat the spread of misinformation. The idea of this sort of internal sabotage never came up.
“If you want the companies to have people to moderate these platforms, it inherently means empowering people to take action against content and users,” said Adam Sharp, who served as head of news, government and elections for Twitter until late 2016. “Similar to the ‘real world,’ if you employ officers to police the community, and empower them with weapons and handcuffs, there is also the potential of bad apples abusing that power.”