When The Problem Isn't Twitter But President Trump
from the solving-the-right-problem dept
President Trump is not happy with Twitter. But a lot of other people were already unhappy with Twitter. As his tweets have grown more abusive by the day, and the non-insane public has naturally grown more outraged by them, there has been an increase in calls for Twitter to delete his tweets, if not his account outright. But what’s worse is the increase in calls that sound just like what Trump now demands: that Section 230 must be changed if Twitter is unwilling to take those steps. Both are bad ideas, however, for separate, although related, reasons.
The basic problem is that there is no easy answer for what to do with Trump’s tweets, also for many reasons. One fundamental reason is that content moderation is essentially an impossible task. As we’ve discussed many, many times before, it is extremely difficult for any platform to establish an editorial policy that will accurately catch 100% of the posts that everyone agrees are awful and no posts that are fine. And part of the reason for that difficulty is that there is no editorial policy that everyone will ever be able to agree on. It’s unlikely that one could be drawn up that even most people would agree on, yet platforms regularly attempt to give it their best shot anyway. But even then, with some sort of policy in place, it is still extremely difficult, if not impossible, to quickly and accurately ascertain whether any particular social media post amidst the enormous deluge of social media posts being made every minute, truly runs afoul of it. As we have said umpteen times, content moderation at scale is hard. Plenty is likely to go wrong for even the most well-intentioned and well-resourced platform.
Furthermore, Trump is no ordinary tweeter whose tweets may run afoul of Twitter’s moderation policies. Trump happens to be the President of the United States, which is a fact that is going to strain any content moderation policy primarily set up to deal with the tweets by people who are not the President of the United States. It is possible, of course, to decide to treat him like any other tweeter, and many have called for Twitter to do exactly that. But it’s not clear that doing so would be a good idea. For better or for worse, his tweets are the tweets of the American Head of State and inherently newsworthy. While one could argue that they should be suppressed because their impact is so prone to being so destructive, it would not be a costless decision. While having the President of the United States tweeting awful things does cause harm, not knowing that the President of the United States is trying to tweet awful things presents its own harm. This is the person we have occupying the highest political office in the land. It would not do the voting public much good if they could not know who he is and what he is trying to do.
The arguments for suppressing his tweets largely are based on the idea that taking away his power to tweet would take away his power to do harm. But the problem is that his power comes from his office, not from Twitter. Taking Twitter away from him doesn’t ultimately defang him. It just defangs the public’s ability to know what is being done by him in their name.
Twitter’s recent decision to add contextualization to his tweets might present a middle ground, although it is unlikely to be a panacea. It puts Twitter in the position of having to make more explicit editorial decisions, which, as discussed above, is an exercise that is difficult to do in a way that will satisfy everyone. It also may not be sustainable: how many tweets will need this treatment? And how many public officials will similarly require it? Still, it certainly seems like a reasonable tack for Twitter to try ? one that tries to mitigate the costs of Trump’s unfettered tweeting without inflicting the costs that would result from their suppression.
Which leads to why Section 230 is so important, and why it is a bad idea to call for changing it in response to Trump. Because Section 230 is what gives Twitter the freedom to try to figure out the best way to handle the situation. There are no easy answers, just best guesses, but were it not for Section 230 Twitter would not be able to give it the best shot it can to get it right. Instead it would be pressured to take certain actions, regardless of whether those actions were remotely in the public interest. Without Section 230 platforms like Twitter will only be able to make decisions in their own interest, and that won’t help them try to meet the public call to do more.
Changing Section 230 also won’t solve anything, because the problem isn’t with Twitter at all. The problem is that the President of the United States is of such poisoned character that he uses his time in office to spread corrosive garbage. The problem is that the President of the United States is using his power to menace citizens. The problem is that the President of the United States is using his role as the chief executive of the country to dissolve confidence in our laws and democratic norms.
The problem is that the President of the United States is doing all these things, and would be doing all these things, regardless of whether he was on Twitter. But what would change if there were no Twitter is our ability to know that this is what he is doing. It is no idle slogan to say that democracy dies in the darkness; it is an essential truth. And it’s why we need to hold fast to our laws that enable the transparency we need to be able to know when our leaders are up to no good if we are to have any hope of keeping them in check.
Because that’s the problem we’re having right now. Not that Twitter isn’t keeping Trump in check, but that nothing else is. That’s the problem that we need to fix. And killing Twitter, or the laws that enable it to exist, will not help us get there. It will only make it much, much harder to bring about that needed change.