Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Twitter’s handling of President Donald Trump’s account makes no sense.
Twitter has removed a video meme posted by President Donald Trump on Wednesday of an edited music clip by the band Nickelback after receiving a copyright infringement complaint from Warner Music, Inc. At the same time, Twitter has chosen not to delete a tweet by President Donald Trump on Sunday quoting a pastor who claimed that if the President is impeached, there will be a civil war.
The Department of Homeland Security recently affirmed the urgent threat of white supremacy in the United States, and as my fellow CNN Opinion contributor Nicole Hemmer has argued, the President’s past tweets have helped spur domestic terrorism fueled by white power, and this one could result in actual violence, as well. So here’s where we are now: Twitter will allow the President to invoke civil war, but harming Nickelback’s rights to their own music is a step too far.
President Trump’s actions on and off social media have long been and will continue to be a subject of consternation and debate for many. But aside from that, there is clearly something very, very wrong with Twitter’s standards. The platform’s decisions this week suggest that the company is ultimately focused only on its own concerns rather than on the larger welfare of society. Twitter will step in and take action when it fears that it could face a lawsuit itself, as in the case of Nickelback. But when others potentially stand to face threats of hate or bodily harm as a result of a presidential tweet, Twitter isn’t willing to do the same thing.
The company likely (justifiably) fears facing the wrath of the President, who has accused Twitter of discriminating against conservatives in the past, if it deletes tweets. CNN has reported that the White House has even drafted an executive order which would have the Federal Communications Commission determine whether social media platforms can remove particular content. The draft would allow the Federal Trade Commission to sue companies like Twitter if they don’t comply with government policy. While Twitter is right to be worried about the prospect of such a chilling development, that isn’t an excuse to allow the President to post content that could put Americans in physical danger.
The President’s tweet on Sunday also clearly violates Twitter’s own standards. According to “The Twitter Rules,” “You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence.” In the past, Twitter has explained that it has chosen not to delete content by the President that might otherwise violate its standards because the company considered it to be “newsworthy.” As I’ve argued before, in practice, this standard means that powerful people are still allowed to incite threats against others on Twitter. That’s outrageous.
In January 2018, Twitter responded to criticism of its decision not to take down other posts by Donald Trump. The company argued in a blog post that, “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.” And in June, the company started notifying users and applying a disclaimer when it decides to leave up tweets by high-profile people that otherwise violate its rules but are deemed to be in the “public interest” – and also featuring such tweets less prominently on its website. On Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris specifically mentioned the tweet in which President Trump used the words “civil war” as one among six cited in her call for Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey to suspend Trump’s account, calling the tweets “blatant threats.” A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to CNN Wednesday that the company had received Harris’s letter and intends to respond.
While there may be legal precedent for removing the Nickelback video, there is also plenty of precedent for censoring language that incites violence. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Of course, this standard applies to actions taken by the government – not private companies. However, the concept that free speech should be restricted to prevent bodily harm is a major part of American political and legal tradition. Twitter’s unwillingness to take down content that could incite violence when its authors are powerful suggests both cowardice and a lack of concern for public safety.
Twitter has given the President of the United States an unprecedented megaphone to share his views directly with the world. As I’ve argued before, Trump’s use of the platform is a major reason why he was elected in the first place. But the company shouldn’t allow anyone to use Twitter to put lives in danger – no matter who they are.
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Twitter needs to seriously rethink its decision to remove presidential tweets when they threaten to harm Twitter but not when they stand to hurt other people.