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.

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Comments on “Trump, Twitter, And Free Speech”

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88 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

If the problem statement is "I have COVID-19" then no, it will not solve that specific problem. But there are certainly other, related problems it will solve.

It will absolutely solve the problem of you having COVID-19. You’ll create other problems—but, with a large enough dose, they won’t bother you for long.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The justice system doesn’t start and stop at the whims of the president of the United States, no matter how much you or anyone else — including the current sitting president and his bootlicking cronies in the Department of Justice — wants to believe otherwise.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

From this morning, straight from the Orange One’s mouth…er, Twitter:

Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can’t let a more sophisticated version of that … happen again. Just like we can’t let large scale Mail-In Ballots take root in our Country. It would be a free for all on cheating, forgery and the theft of Ballots. Whoever cheated the most would win. Likewise, Social Media. Clean up your act, NOW!!!!

Putting aside his comparisons to mail-in ballots (which is a whole other discussion for a whole other time), that Trump thinks he can shut down Twitter because it dared to fact-check one — one! — of his tweets would be hilarious in virtually any other context. But since he thinks he can violate the First Amendment by directing the federal government to censor or shut down a privately owned platform for speech…well, that fucking frightens me. If he thinks he can go that far, and his sycophant followers both within the GOP and in the ranks of “everyday” Americans would let him do it, what the hell else would they be willing to enable?

Of course, this raises another question: Even if this alleged “bias against conservatives” exists…so fuckin’ what? They’re not entitled by law to use Twitter. And besides, if you got kicked out because your bullshit wasn’t welcome, I can’t imagine why would you want the government forcing some place that doesn’t want you to let you back in — other than spite, that is.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: 'Congrats on the 'win', now get the hell out.'

Yeah, I don’t see that working out so great for him if he tried and enough politicians were stupid enough to follow along….

‘Now that we are legally liable for any posts on our platform we will be immediately revoking and removing your account, and you will be permanently banned from ever using our platform again. We got sued enough when we weren’t liable for user content and only avoided significant harm due to 230, there is no chance in hell we’re going to risk hosting your speech and dealing with the lawsuits it would bring.’

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

On one hand, I agree.

On the other hand, Trump is a public figure and his words carry extra newsworthiness as a result. (Also: Have you seen the kinds of people who support him? I’d fear for my life if I were a Twitter employee right after Twitter banned Trump.)

That One Guy (profile) says:

Either bring the hammer down or make it official

If a platform is going to let someone get away with what anyone else would immediately get the hammer for they might as well just make it official.

‘Henceforth we shall be making official our ‘All animals are equal’ policy, which was previously unofficial but understood to exist, which states that while the majority of users are required to follow the rules put forth if you’ve got enough power you can do whatever the hell you want and we’ll look the other way. As explained in the policy ‘Rules are for the little people.’ ‘

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Cool. Has that helped you avoid the consequences of the millions of other people following him and taking his words as truth over the last few years? Because living in mid-pandemic and mid-recession U.S. that’s the result of years of his acolytes doing what he says, I can say that it sure as shit hasn’t helped me.

“Respond to Bad Speech With More Speech” may work if you’re they captain of your high school debate team engaging in good-faith arguments with an opponent, and ignoring bad speech may help you if some wingnut is preaching on the street corner, but this situation is neither here nor there. The President has a megaphone in the form of Twitter, and he uses it to rally his devoted base, spread lies and bigotry, and drag this country ever farther down the abyss.

Twitter providing fact-checking for Trump and his base, as if they give a shit that they’re wrong or are willing to hear what anybody else has to say in good faith, is gonna get us nowhere; the last few years of newspapers, talk-show hosts and tweets telling him & his followers that they’re wrong to no avail has proved that much. Just ban the idiot and everyone who espouses his same bullshit and be done with it.

tz1 (profile) says:

If you believe that about Scarborough

I have a bridge over the Chappaquiddic river to sell you.

What no one seems to consider is a system of user moderation. “I don’t want to see any tweets about X”. Or if I follow X and they upvoted Y, I would see Y. But then I would be controlling the narrative, not them.

(Twitter is a horrible platform for complex issues like mail in ballots – should we require Real IDs to get on the voter rolls every few years? Should we send them to inactive voters? Doesn’t fit well, so any discussion requires a very long and cumbersome tweetstorm).

The worst problem is the arbitraryness. The rules seem to be “Fine for Anti-Fa to call for specific violence, but don’t misgender anyone”. It is too easy to find X banned but Y allowed though they break the same rule. And I dont see CCP propoganda being fact checked. Well, the WHO said there isn’t human to human transmission of Covid because China said so.

Overall I’d prefer the reason and evidence and having discussions, rhetorical if not dialectic, to hash it out. Instead there are ARBITRARY deletions and bans. Instead of bad ideas, there are bad persons (Mile, Alex Jones) – somehow no one on the Left including those who have called for Trump to be assassinated.

Oh, and “build your own platform”? See Gab that was demonitized and deplatformed more than once for alleged posts that simply paralled Facebook (like the NZ massacre deadstream). If you refuse to allow any alternative platform unless they are as blue as Twitter, what do you expect? Every platform that permits free speech (anything that the 1st amendment allows, and perhaps bans doxxing and defamation) gets a SJW mob and gets shut down.

Yes, that bad, a Google Drive copy of Plandemic was deleted by Google. Censorship is argumentum ad balaculum. If there were no rational or evidence based arguments, ought I not assume Plandemic is true? Or see Michael Moore’s recent takedown.

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tz1 (profile) says:

If you believe that about Scarborough

I have a bridge over the Chappaquiddic river to sell you.

What no one seems to consider is a system of user moderation. “I don’t want to see any tweets about X”. Or if I follow X and they upvoted Y, I would see Y. But then I would be controlling the narrative, not them.

(Twitter is a horrible platform for complex issues like mail in ballots – should we require Real IDs to get on the voter rolls every few years? Should we send them to inactive voters? Doesn’t fit well, so any discussion requires a very long and cumbersome tweetstorm).

The worst problem is the arbitraryness. The rules seem to be “Fine for Anti-Fa to call for specific violence, but don’t misgender anyone”. It is too easy to find X banned but Y allowed though they break the same rule. And I dont see CCP propoganda being fact checked. Well, the WHO said there isn’t human to human transmission of Covid because China said so.

Overall I’d prefer the reason and evidence and having discussions, rhetorical if not dialectic, to hash it out. Instead there are ARBITRARY deletions and bans. Instead of bad ideas, there are bad persons (Mile, Alex Jones) – somehow no one on the Left including those who have called for Trump to be assassinated.

Oh, and “build your own platform”? See Gab that was demonitized and deplatformed more than once for alleged posts that simply paralled Facebook (like the NZ massacre deadstream). If you refuse to allow any alternative platform unless they are as blue as Twitter, what do you expect? Every platform that permits free speech (anything that the 1st amendment allows, and perhaps bans doxxing and defamation) gets a SJW mob and gets shut down.

Yes, that bad, a Google Drive copy of Plandemic was deleted by Google. Censorship is argumentum ad balaculum. If there were no rational or evidence based arguments, ought I not assume Plandemic is true? Or see Michael Moore’s recent takedown.

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Anonymous Coward says:

“Paper ballots are EXTREMELY susceptible to fraud…I can show you experience which would make your head spin.” — Rep. Jerry Nadler D-NY (2004)

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/us/politics/as-more-vote-by-mail-faulty-ballots-could-impact-elections.html

Between 2012 and 2018, 28.3 million mail-in ballots remain unaccounted for, according to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission: https://publicinterestlegal.org/files/Mail-Voting-2012_2018-2P.pdf

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Mishandling of legitimate ballots by the government and/or its subcontractors is called electoral fraud, not voter fraud.

Mail in voting has occurred for many years in several states with no problems. That’s all there is to it, except for all the bullshit emanating from gop types.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The "problem" with mail-in voting is that Republicans know and admit they can’t win a fair election

As much as I’d like to agree with that assertion, I’m pretty sure numerous elections held via vote-by-mail have resulted in Republican victories. I’ll need to see a citation if you want to say that all those elections were somehow unfair or featured some sort of cheating/tampering.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I don’t think the two are necessarily in conflict though.

‘Mail-in voting can result in republicans being elected’ and ‘more widespread and easier voting via mail-in voting could result in less republicans being elected’ could both be true, as while it may not change anything in areas that are heavily republican in an area where the numbers aren’t so one-sided heavier voting could very well be the difference in which party wins, explaining the attacks against it.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The "problem" with mail-in voting is that Republicans know and admit they can’t win a fair election, and the accessibility of mail ballots negates their voter-suppression campaigns.

There is no credible evidence that mail in elections favor Democrats.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/us/politics/vote-by-mail.html

https://www.wired.com/story/weird-partisan-math-vote-by-mail/

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/there-is-no-evidence-that-voting-by-mail-gives-one-party-an-advantage/

https://www.denverpost.com/2020/05/24/mail-vote-ballots-colorado-coronavirus/

Anonymous Coward says:

Reintroduce the fairness doctrine?

Exactly how would regulation of social media be implemented? This is a tricky question. Does Trump want to reintroduce the fairness doctrine?
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FCC_fairness_doctrine
This was replealed by the Democrats under Regan in 1987. The supreme court upheld the fairness doctrine due to the limited nature of the resource, namely public broadcast spectrum. However, I am not sure social media space qualifies as enough of a limited public resource to overcome the issue of compelled speech versus free speech. I think the Citizens United case is clear that corporations have free speech rights. Tricky for Trump….

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Reintroduce the fairness doctrine?

Exactly how would regulation of social media be implemented? This is a tricky question. Does Trump want to reintroduce the fairness doctrine?

Unconstitutionally, not terribly, and I would be surprised if he even knew what it was, but in any case those throwing a fit about social media ‘bias’ don’t want fairness, they want special treatment for them and theirs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Reintroduce the fairness doctrine?

"This was replealed by the Democrats under Regan in 1987"

How did that work exactly? Reagan was the sitting president and if I recall correctly the FCC reports to the president. The FCC is the government agency that eliminated the policy.

"The fairness doctrine of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses "

and then there is this tidbit from the link you provided:
"The Fairness Doctrine has been strongly opposed by prominent conservatives and libertarians who view it as an attack on First Amendment rights and property rights"

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Reintroduce the fairness doctrine?

How did that work exactly?

It is not entirely accurate to say Democrats did it, and certainly not a Democratic Congress, which is what is usually meant when someone says "repealed* by the Democrats". Two Republicans and two Democrats did it.

"On August 5, 1987, under FCC Chairman Dennis R. Patrick, the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4–0 vote"

  • yes technically he said "replealed"
AlexisR200 says:

Its rather simple actually.

The only issue we have with Trump and Twitter is the entirely unearned and unnecessary deference towards the US presidency. Yes the position itself is revered to almost religious levels in the US which hinders America and by extension companies like Twitter from dealing with Trump’s malicious behavior in a correct manner.

This comes at the expense of both helping Trump use his government position to give traction to even the most insane conspiracy BS and eroding the public’s trust in the presidency itself.

Here are the facts:

Trump runs so afoul of Twitter’s own moderation policies that he would be banned were he not the US President.

Twitter’s CEO resisted to moderate Trump to the point of creating an exeption for "important figures" like a head of State.

That those are actual facts is both insane and the root of the problem. Twitter avoids moderating Trump because it brings it more users and engagement to the platform. This reasonably translates into substantial money for Twitter.

Given that it should be feasible to asign a small group of fact checkers and moderators to handle Trump’s account. There is no need to censor or even remove Trump’s tweets but there is a need for accuracy labels if we are talking accounts with outsized influence when they are exempted from normal moderation guidelines.

If we get right down to it, there is a truth that we all know from back when we were kids but aparently forget when it comes to dealing with a misbehaving president like Trump.

A timeout has never killed any kids but it teaches them that bad behavior will not be rewarded. It should be applied uniformly at misbehaving politicians like Trump too. He will not die and he might even learn a lesson (or do something extremely petty) it’s definitely worth doing.

Federico (profile) says:

Mastodon

She points out that kicking Trump off Twitter is a non-starter.

Yes, but it would be nice if he left on his own. The GOP can make its own Mastodon server and if Trump moves there it will get millions of users overnight.

All other instances in the fediverse except Gab will probably block it, so it will be completely insulated from the "normal" discourse, which is how the right-wing media work (see "Network propaganda" by Benckler). Trump’s comments will inundate Twitter and all the other social networks all the same, because Reuters and everyone else rush to repost them everywhere, but Trump will have its own Fox News of social media.

The only difficulty might be how to square this with the advertising campaigns where the conversion factor is measured against merchandise sold and mailing list subscriptions.

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NaBUru38 (profile) says:

I agree with Mike that deleting Trump’s tweets would be a tertible idea, and that fighting speech with speech was an excellent decision by Twitter.

Now, I disagree with nearly everything that Trump says. However, I do think that mail voting isn’t fail safe. There’s no way to guaranteethat a mail vote was sent by the person who is supposed to, just like with internet voting.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"However, I do think that mail voting isn’t fail safe."

It’s not. But, have you any evidence that it has been compromised already in the states where it has been regularly used for years? If not, then why is it problematic to expand it nationally? I know that if I were an American, I’d trust a mail-in ballot many times more than the horribly secured electronic systems that you have.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Hold On A Sec, Mr. Masnick

"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."

Is this not a case of someone blatantly violating Twitter’s TOS? They put a policy in place that they’d be the arbiters of what does and does not constitute "misinformation". Isn’t their policy to delete accounts that spread misinformation?

But if Trump is a spreader of misinformation, it’s not "difficult". Why is it "difficult" to do this content moderation? Twitter is aware of it. So delete his account.

Not difficult. At all. It’s Twitter’s free speech.

Ohhhh, I see. Twitter is afraid of the consequences of that free speech.

Hmmm. Almost like the recent left wing "freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences" battle cry is just a blatant ploy to justify when bad things happen to crimethinkers: "Hey Andy Ngo, you deserved being assaulted … freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, you gay Asian Nazi!"

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Hold On A Sec, Mr. Masnick

Why is it "difficult" to do this content moderation?

Would you trust the current DOJ not to go on a rampage against social media if ordered to do so by Trump? Note winning the lawsuit is small consolation to your relatives because some trigger happy goon shot you during a raid on your offices,

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Hold On A Sec, Mr. Masnick

"Is this not a case of someone blatantly violating Twitter’s TOS?"

It is. However, they do have the right to discretion, and sadly the balance so far is that Trump’s revenue potential outweighs their policy. The lesson here is – if you want to be an asshole, you need to be a profitable asshole.

"Ohhhh, I see. Twitter is afraid of the consequences of that free speech."

Yes. Just as the assholes who have been banned from Twitter should have been afraid of the consequences of their speech, rather than act like assholes and then whine like babies when the consequences arrives.

"Hey Andy Ngo, you deserved being assaulted … freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, you gay Asian Nazi!"

What’s funny is that you somehow think that actual physical violence doesn’t also carry consequences, but at least you’ve confirmed your bigotry for us.

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