Trump, Twitter, And Free Speech
from the trump-impossibility-theorem dept
Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. But, also content moderation of a world leader spewing blatant conspiracy theories may be just as difficult, and that’s not even at scale.
We’re only partway through this week, and Donald Trump has already created a textbook’s worth of content moderation questions to explore. It started with Trump going nuts with a bunch of tweets about a blatantly disproved conspiracy theory regarding a young staffer of TV host Joe Scarborough from back when he was in Congress. That staffer, Lori Klausutis, died from an undiagnosed heart condition years ago. The police and coroner found no evidence of foul play. And suddenly Trump, who used to appear on Scarborough’s show back in the day, decided to spew a bunch of utter nonsense hinting strongly at the blatantly false idea that Scarborough had something to do with Klausutis’ death.
This is straight out of the Trump playbook. It is blatant false news (the accusation he likes to make about anyone who reports accurately on his activities). It is insane conspiracy mongering. It is hurtful. It is hateful. It is potentially dangerous. And it serves Trump in two distinct ways: as a distraction from his ongoing cataclysmic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as part of his never-ending intimidation campaign against anyone in the media who dares to point out that the emperor has no clothes. As the Atlantic noted, this is malignant cruelty. It is disgusting.
Many people have been arguing that Twitter should shut down Trump’s account or, at the very least, delete the tweets in question. Indeed, Klausutis’ husband sent a deeply moving letter to Jack Dorsey begging him to remove the President’s tweets:
I have mourned my wife every day since her passing. I have tried to honor her memory and our marriage. As her husband, I feel that one of my marital obligations is to protect her memory as I would have protected her in life. There has been a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died. I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, unfortunately it is the verifiable truth. Because of this, I have struggled to move forward with my life.
The frequency, intensity, ugliness, and promulgation of these horrifying lies ever increases on the internet. These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage. President Trump on Tuesday tweeted to his nearly 80 million followers alluding to the repeatedly debunked falsehood that my wife was murdered by her boss, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough. The son of the president followed and more directly attacked my wife by tweeting to his followers as the means of spreading this vicious lie.
I?m sure you are aware of this situation because media around the world have covered it, but just in case, here it is:
My request is simple: Please delete these tweets.
I?m a research engineer and not a lawyer, but I?ve reviewed all of Twitter?s rules and terms of service. The President?s tweet that suggests that Lori was murdered ? without evidence (and contrary to the official autopsy) ? is a violation of Twitter?s community rules and terms of service. An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.
I am now angry as well as frustrated and grieved. I understand that Twitter?s policies about content are designed to maintain the appearance that your hands are clean you provide the platform and the rest is up to users. However, in certain past cases, Twitter has removed content and accounts that are inconsistent with your terms of service.
I?m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him ? the memory of my dead wife ? and perverted it for perceived political gain. I would also ask that you consider Lori?s niece and two nephews who will eventually come across this filth in the future. They have never met their Aunt and it pains me to think they would ever have to ?learn? about her this way.
My wife deserves better.
The letter was first published in a NY Times article by Kara Swisher in which she, too, backs the idea that the tweets should be deleted. Swisher’s article is carefully argued — and she notes that Twitter is facing a Gordian knot (though, not quite sure that’s the right metaphor) with no good solution. She points out that kicking Trump off Twitter is a non-starter. As she says, it “would be pointless and too drastic,” and (perhaps more importantly), “the firestorm it would set off would alone be disastrous for Twitter to manage.” She also feels that labeling the tweets as false wouldn’t do very much at all (more on that in a moment…) and concludes that the best of a bunch of not-good options is to delete the specific tweets. As she notes, it would be different if this was just about two public figures, like Scarborough and Trump. But the inclusion of a non-public figure makes it much trickier.
I am supportive of the suggestion Mr. Klausutis makes in his letter to simply remove the offending tweets.
While the always thoughtful Mr. Dorsey has said previously that he has to hew to Twitter?s principles and rules, and that the company cannot spend all of its time reacting, its approach up until now results only in Twitter?s governance getting gamed by players like Mr. Trump, in ways that are both shameless and totally expected.
So why not be unexpected with those who continue to abuse the system? Taking really valuable one-off actions can be laudable since they make an example of someone?s horrid behavior as a warning to others. While it is impossible to stop the endless distribution of a screenshot of the tweets, taking the original ones down would send a strong message that this behavior is not tolerated.
I think that Swisher’s analysis is thoughtful, but I come to a different conclusion. I think that deleting those tweets would set off a shit storm almost as big as closing Trump’s account.
And to make that case, let’s look no further than the second big content moderation case study that Trump has kicked off this week. Trump spewed some more of his usual nonsense, claiming that mail-in ballots would result in widespread voter fraud — a laughable claim not supported by any of the data out there, including among states that already do universal mail-in ballots. Given Twitter’s policies regarding misinformation directly around elections, as well as its recently launched tools to label certain tweets as misleading, Twitter (for the first time with a Trump tweet, but not the first time using this feature) put an additional note on Trump’s tweet that simply said “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” and linked to a Twitter Moments page detailing the facts regarding mail-in ballots.
This is a pro-free speech approach to handling these matters. It’s a “respond to bad speech with more speech” approach. Hell, even the notes on Trump’s tweets were incredibly tame. I’ve seen other ones that directly claim that certain tweets are “misleading.” The note on Trump’s tweet didn’t even say that — it just said “get the facts” (indeed, I saw some people who thought the wording of the notification almost looked like it was in support of Trump’s tweet.
And yet the crybaby in chief still threw a ridiculously stupid temper tantrum:
This is ridiculous on many, many different levels. First off, and most importantly, adding more speech is literally the opposite of “stifling free speech.” Second, all they’re doing is providing an opinion and more information to a statement by the President — which is itself quintessential protected free speech under the 1st Amendment. Third, because of that, there’s nothing that the President can do about this, no matter how big a temper tantrum he throws. Fourth, the idea that providing factual information is “interfering with the election” seems to be an “I know you are but what am I” kind of childish taunt from the President.
And yet, the President’s usual lapdogs immediately went to work in support of the Emperor and his missing clothes. Spineless Marco Rubio jumped up with some nonsense about “forums” and “publishers” that suggests that he is either ignorant of the law, or simply playing dumb to get a pat on the head:
Twitter is already held legally liable from content that they themselves publish. So if they added something to a tweet, they would be liable if that content violated any law. But they are not liable for moderation decisions and it would be totally counterproductive if they were.
Hell, if Rubio or others removed Twitter’s Section 230 protections, it seems quite likely that Trump’s tweets about Klausutis would be among the first removed, because without that protection, the site might face legal liability.
But all this brings us back around to the question of what Twitter should do in this situation. If merely adding a link to more information causes Trump and his cadre of yes-men to freak out to this level, imagine the insanity that would rain down on us if Twitter actually did delete one of his tweets. It seems highly unlikely that it would create a good outcome. Everyone who already thinks Trump is a giant man-baby who shouldn’t be anywhere near the halls of power wouldn’t be any better off. But Trump and his fans would be able to play the victim, which is about the only role he seems able to play. There’s no need to give him that martyrdom. It would just entrench the false belief that Twitter is targeting a particular political viewpoint, and do little to help anyone.
Again: there are no good answers here. Trump is spewing utter nonsense that is deliberately malicious and harmful to people. But he does remain the President. His comments won’t disappear even if his tweets do. And the utter shit storm that would be unleashed by deleting those tweets would drown out whatever flicker of excitement it would create among Trump haters. It’s a short-term feel-good move with massive long-term consequences. Twitter should stand its ground here, even while recognizing that Trump is going to continue to work the refs to make sure more of his nonsense is left unimpeded. But taking down one of his tweets seems only likely to make things worse, not better.