Every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump began his day as he usually does—by tweeting.
In this case, Trump fired off a threat of using “serious force” against hypothetical protesters setting up an “autonomous zone” in Washington, D.C. Twitter, in response, hid the tweet but did not delete it, requiring readers to click through a notice that says the tweet violated the platform’s policy “against abusive behavior, specifically, the presence of a threat of harm against an identifiable group.”
Twitter’s placement of such a “public interest notice” on a tweet from the president of the United States was just the latest salvo in the company’s struggle to contend with Trump’s gleefully out-of-bounds behavior. But any response from Twitter is going to be the least bad option rather than a genuinely good one. This is because Trump himself has demolished the norms that would make a genuinely good response possible in the first place.
The truth is that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable. Although we don’t have consensus about what we want, no one would ask for what we currently have: a world in which two unelected entrepreneurs are in a position to monitor billions of expressions a day, serve as arbiters of truth, and decide what messages are amplified or demoted. This is the power that Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have, and they may well experience their own discomfort with it. Nor, though, would many of us wish for such powerful people to stand idly by when, at no risk to themselves, they could intervene to prevent misery and violence in the physical world, by, say, helping to counter dangerous misinformation or preventing the incitement of violence.
Many American institutions that broadly serve the public ask the people who work within them to separate their own opinions from their work, in the name of serving a larger professional cause, or representing and accommodating people who might disagree with them personally. This is certainly the case across the military, the media, and even Wikipedia, and it’s likewise the general position espoused by social-media giants such as Twitter and Facebook. Historically, it has also been the stance of one of the country’s core institutions: the presidency. The president has long been expected—by the public, and by the Constitution—to act in America’s best interest, not his or her own narrow ones.
But Trump appears unable to conceive of a national interest apart from his personal ones. He not only fails in this regard, but does so utterly and unapologetically. His actions have abused the baseline deference and respect typically accorded the platform of the presidency by adjacent public and private institutions. As a result, any norms attempting to separate institutions from the personal inclinations of its members have been stretched or dispensed with. And that puts companies such as Twitter in a particularly tricky position, stuck between violating their own norms or maintaining them at the expense of saying and doing nothing about the transgressions by others.
As my colleague Evelyn Douek observes, when Trump has a personal grudge and lashes out with the power of the state, there’s only so much compensation the rest of our institutions can lend. In other words, when an oncoming car careens across the yellow line, the traffic it endangers can’t and shouldn’t stay in its own lane. At this point, even the frozen-food company Steak-umm has disapprovingly subtweeted the president’s repeated misinformation about vital subjects. Many companies may feel obliged to signal when they think that unprecedented statements and actions by prominent leaders are out of bounds, and thus not to be treated as normal. The alternative is to contribute to the normalization of dangerously abnormal behavior.
The social-media platforms themselves, by contrast, play a unique role in this dynamic, in that the people who run them are not only able to personally call out the president’s posts, but are both the vessels for and moderators of them. So what should social-media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook do if their respective CEOs think the president is engaging in behavior that would, and should, result in deletion or suspension for a regular account with 10 followers? Is it better to call out the behavior and respond to it with power that greatly exceeds that of, say, Steak-umm, or is it better to let it stand, treating Trump—and other politicians—differently?
Twitter has, in the case of Trump’s false tweets about voting by mail, appended a link for people to “get the facts about mail-in ballots,” which leads to a point-by-point refutation, authored by Twitter, of the president’s falsehoods. The platform has specific policies about unsubstantiated claims aimed at undermining faith in the integrity of balloting, and Dorsey has made clear that the application of those policies, as with a typical company, rests with him. “There is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me,” Dorsey tweeted last month.
Consider the case of Trump’s tweet saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a verbatim throwback to a ’60s-era phrase used by a white police commissioner who also said, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.” Trump tweeted this in light of mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Twitter, as it did this week, hid that tweet but stopped short of deleting it, requiring readers to click through a notice that read: “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”
Trump, as is his wont, hit back. He has previously said that he thinksthe company disrespects him and his supporters: “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives [sic] voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”
After Twitter’s labeling of Trump’s tweets, the White House announced a new executive order about “Preventing Online Censorship.” In a press conference about the order, Trump said of Twitter: “If it were able to be legally shut down, I would do it.” Perhaps some heart may be taken from the fact that it’s a conditional threat—he’s precisely not trying to shut down Twitter, because he acknowledges that would be illegal. The order is a jumble—requiring experts to try to make sense of it—because it’s attempting to throw the kitchen sink at Trump’s perceived enemies of the moment, rather than identifying a particular public-policy problem, then attempting to grapple with it in a consistent way. The Department of Justice and several Republican senators have since proposed legislation to find ways to limit immunities that Twitter, Facebook, and other websites that amplify users’ content enjoy.
Those proposals can be analyzed and judged on their own terms as if they simply appeared on Congress’s docket out of nowhere, and I’d normally offer here some thoughts on their details. But I can’t stay in my academic lane. The executive order, and the push for more legislation, is part of a larger pattern in which the president appears to seek vengeance against those who even mildly criticize him, retaliating in any way he can, including by using the powers of his office. When, for instance, he didn’t like The Washington Post’s reporting about him, he made it clear—on Twitter, fittingly enough—that, because the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he would like to disadvantage Amazon however he can, including by demanding that the U.S. Postal Service raise its shipping rates. Here, the executive order is so scattershot, and the legislation so crudely sweeping, that it’s important to recognize that it conveys more than its text says. What it really says is: We can make you hurt unless you do what we want, and what we want is what helps the president personally.
To be sure, one can welcome Twitter’s stepping into the breach here by labeling or limiting some posts, while still being troubled by how powerful that platform has become, in terms of both its outsize voice in the political conversation and its ability to control the virality of the voices of others.
Over time, Twitter’s and Facebook’s interventions have gone from nothing, to wholly arbitrary, to feeling their way to some kind of process. For example, both Dorsey and Zuckerberg have made good points in their now-crystallized disputes about the proper role of social-media platforms in identifying truth and falsehood, particularly in the speech of elected officials. At different times, each has wanted to be more hands-off in the name of protecting democracy while also standing ready to ban or label certain content in the name of protecting democracy.
Their disagreements are perhaps overplayed. In fact, both see dangers in the platforms assessing political advertising; they diverge largely in what they think should follow from that. Facebook, with some exceptions, allows political advertising to stand, even if “demonstrably false”; Twitter simply doesn’t allow the advertising at all. And for posts such as those of Trump’s that have threatened extrajudicial violence, both platforms have policies that could apply, perhaps differing primarily in how much they want to involve independent third parties to review decisions or perform fact-checking. Zuckerberg has since indicated he’s considering policies that would bring Facebook more closely in line with Twitter.
In the past three years, both companies have increasingly restricted what people can post when the posts amount, in the eyes of the companies and many users, to harassment or dangerous falsehood. Facebook has established an independent review board that will have the last word, short of law itself, on whether the company has been true to its rules when taking down certain posts. It’s a way of intervening to prevent misery and violence while avoiding the arbitrariness of a CEO’s morning mood determining what sorts into what category—a delegation itself made possible by the CEO’s power to unilaterally transfer some of the enormous power he holds. And Facebook has experimented with the use of outside fact-checking organizations to label sketchy posts—splitting the difference between tech companies weighing content and leaving users entirely to their own devices. (Of course, controversy then arose around which fact-checking organizations should be trusted.)
If I were writing this in a world where Donald Trump were not president, I might now toss out an outlandish hypothetical or two of the sort that law professors use to anchor a conversation at one extreme to challenge the resolve of people’s positions. For example, to help students test out their own views about the merits and boundaries of a policy prohibiting the glorification of violence, maybe I’d ask what, if anything, Twitter and Facebook should do if the president of the United States seriously, baselessly, and repeatedly accused a prominent media figure of murder.
It might be hard to think of Twitter’s “civic integrity” policy as controversial, when it simply precludes such behavior as sharing “false or misleading information intended to intimidate or dissuade people from participating in an election or other civic process.” So maybe I’d ask students to indulge the question of whether the platforms should enforce this policy if the president himself impugned the integrity of multiple states’ ballot-by-mail systems as “substantially fraudulent,” using a flatly inaccurate description of a state’s registration-by-mail system. But here we are, in both cases lacking the comfortable distance that comes with hypotheticals.
In the near term, the simplest solution is to vote Trump out of office. In the longer term, the most promising path for online content moderation lies in taking up unavoidable decisions by the largest companies in ways that respect the gravity of those decisions—likely involving outside parties in structured, visible roles—and, even more important, in decentralizing the flows of information online so that no one company can readily change the map.
So when Twitter tempers its deference and wades into a fraught zone by fact-checking in its own voice, still judged in the public sphere by its attention to the real facts, I respect its decision. One way to try to break what is raging behavior even—and especially—by a president is to create policies to deal with it, policies that would collect dust if the rule of law and the institutions designed to reinforce it were not under such extraordinary and explicit attack.
All Rights Reserved for Jonathan Zittrain