Trump runs a ‘Twitter presidency’. With one click, He can upend news cycles, escalate tensions domestically and internationally, and incite widespread anger and indignation. But with their new fact-checking labels and flags, Twitter might be changing that. Candy Chan reflects on Twitter’s take on Trump.
On July 1, 2017, President Trump tweeted: My use of social media is not Presidential – its MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” This proclamation, made halfway through his first year as president, would ring true for the years to come.
On any given day, Trump can send out upwards to 100 tweets. His tweets detail matters of foreign relations, share his dissatisfaction with liberal media and condemn his political opponents. They are then retweeted by his ardent followers and staff, flooding the website and fueling both discussions and arguments.
His tweets often went without interference from Twitter itself, until May 26th, when Trump tweeted claiming that mail-in ballots would result in a “rigged election” and the platform labeled it “potentially misleading”.
Three days later, Twitter restricted another tweet from the President saying “‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” for “glorifying violence.” They have not flagged any of Trump’s tweets since.
Twitter’s move shocked and angered many, among them Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, who calls it a political tactic” to obstruct Trump getting his message through to voters. Trump declared that this decision to fact-check his tweets is a violation of his free speech to Twitter, on Twitter. Mark Zuckerberg chimed in too, saying that he believes private companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth.”
But Twitter has been moderating content for a few years now, they just haven’t subjected politicians to the policies they enforce. Now they’ve caught up with Trump, who has transformed the capabilities of social media and proved that his Twitter is, indeed, MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”
In his four years in office, Trump has changed the presidential status quo. His “Twitter presidency” gives him an unfiltered way to address the American public. He wields the Internet as a political tool, and with it, he creates an alternative political reality.
Election integrity, misinformation, and glorification of violence
The platform unveiled its fact-checking feature on May 11 specifically to target inaccurate and dangerous tweets about COVID-19. When the presidents of Brazil and Venezuela promoted unproven treatments for the disease, Twitter removed the tweets entirely.
As small as these labels identifying misleading information appear on the site, they are the product of a project in the works for two years at Twitter, with roots dating back to the 2016 elections, when social media platforms received criticism for their role in spreading false stories and their inaction towards Russian interference.
In 2018, the platform proved merciless in its crusade against fake and suspicious accounts, suspending more than 70 million in the months of May and June alone.
Even as Twitter hardened its responses to fake news and accounts, politicians often did not face any censorship, with the platform justifying that their comments were too “newsworthy” to potentially censor.
Twitter rolled out policies to protect “elections integrity” and more recently, “civic integrity,” which prohibit users from sharing content that may suppress voter participation or spread misinformation about the civic process.
At the core of what Twitter hopes to provide is a public conversation. According to their website, they believe they have a responsibility to “protect the integrity of those conversations from interference and manipulation,” especially when those conversations deal with matters of voting and civic engagement.
Trump’s tweet about mail-in ballots violated the new “civic integrity” protocol. Though Twitter took issue with Trump’s claim that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud, there was one verifiable nugget of information proven untrue that Twitter used to justify the label: that the Governor of California was sending ballots “to millions of people, anyone….. living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there.” Ballots are only going to registered voters.
When Twitter flagged Trump’s tweet in which he wrote: When the looting starts, the shooting starts” for glorifying violence, that came from a decision made a year ago to no longer turn a blind eye to politicians violating the platform’s policies on hateful conduct. In his tweet, Trump quotes a Miami police chief’s warning to black protesters in 1967. These words were uttered by police chief Walter Headley at a news conference “declaring war.”
However, the sentiment behind the flag goes back further and reflects a broader philosophical evolution. In an interview with The Washington Post in 2018, Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, said, one of the biggest shifts is in how we think about balancing free expression versus the potential for free expression to chill someone else’s speech.”
Free expression doesn’t really mean much if people don’t feel safe,” he continued.
This philosophical shift for the platform coincides with its crucial role during Trump’s presidency as a tool for politicization, communication, and documentation.
Trump: the social media savvy boomer
“The president wants to come into your home and sit at your fireside for a little fireside chat,” announced CBS broadcaster Robert Trout in 1933.
Over Franklin D. Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, he regularly held fireside chats as a way to communicate directly to the public. He used radio to answer questions, clear up confusion over government programs, express encouragement when the nation was at war, and request cooperation from his constituents.
Radio was perfect for what Roosevelt wanted. The 30s were the golden years of radio; by 1937, nearly 90% of the U.S. population had access to one. Radio overtook newspapers for how most Americans received their news — sounds familiar, right?
Roosevelt redefined the way the White House connected to the average American and Trump reimagines the same shift, taking it a step further to reshape the limits of presidential power. With one click, Trump can upend news cycles, escalate tensions domestically and internationally, and incite widespread anger and indignation.
In March 2019, Trump tweeted his recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, an unprecedented move for an American president. As expected, there was significant backlash from both American people and foreign governments. Trump’s call for recognition of Israel’s claim to Golan Heights has received condemnation from Germany, France, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Russia; a Kremlin spokesperson said, “It is just a call for now. Let’s hope it will remain a call.”
A few months later at a White House conference, Trump joked, “boom. I press it… and, within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’” He was delighted at his power and the scale of the responses to his tweet. Trump knew just how well his Twitter can govern the daily, weekly, or even monthly news cycle.
Trump has a discernible agenda when it comes to his Twitter: this is his mode of attack and where he derives his power. A New York Times analysis of Trump’s tweets conducted last year found that more than half of his tweets were attacks on someone or something; his targets range from athletes to members of the previous administrations, to the Russia investigation, and even entire (majority blue) cities.
With Twitter, Trump challenges what a President’s communication with citizens traditionally looks like. Instead of using his platform to call for unity and multiculturalism, Trump’s tweets are intentionally divisive and polarizing. This is a president, a man of the people, that does not actually need popular support from the people.
Trump effectively engages in a common communications tactic scholars call framing, according to Maurice Hall, dean of the School of Arts and Communication at the College of New Jersey. Framing is a communication tactic used to narrow the interpretation of an issue to suit the needs of the communicator.
Hall gives the following example:fake news.” Trump’s constant positioning of the media as “fake” and the “enemy of the people” when he receives negative coverage distracts his followers from the stories and events that led to negative coverage in the first place. In fact, Trump normalized fake news” to the extent that American society distrusts the press; the assaults on journalists by both police and protesters at demonstrations and the defacement of a CNN headquarters in Atlanta after the death of George Floyd speaks to that.
Trump’s model of what Hall calls “leader communication” is important because it is powerful. Hall writes, “Leader communication does not merely describe reality; rather, leader communication calls into being the reality with which it engages.”
Trump’s power exists offline and online, and just like he is limited by the system of government in real life, he now faces limits to what he can post on Twitter.
In the wake of Twitter’s decision to fact-check and flag his tweets, Trump signed an executive order preventing online censorship and protecting free speech, “the bedrock of American democracy.”
But even though Trump and his allies accuse Twitter of violating his right to free speech, Twitter’s response to Trump’s tweets is arguably an exercise of their First Amendment rights too, according to Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Twitter certainly did not eradicate political misinformation or find a long-term solution for it. However, the fact that they are now willing to take on Trump — that they will subject political figures to the same policies as regular users — is a start.
This being said, it is unclear if Twitter treats all politicians to the same level of scrutiny as it does Trump. Here lies more grey area the platform should work to address, because just last week, supreme leader of Iran Ali Khamenei called Israel a “deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region.” Is this not hateful rhetoric? The Chinese Communist Party’s top officials have used the platform to spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19, including one that suggests it originated from a U.S. lab. Is this not false information? Both tweets in reference are still on the platform without a label or a flag.
So there is a lot Twitter has to make clear about its policies, but its intentions are, nonetheless, in the name of public service. Twitter is waging a noble war against misinformation, and its first notable target happens to be Trump.
2020 is a doozy; millions march on the streets for justice and equality as the pandemic rages on. Trump’s Twitter ought to be a reflection of and a response to what reality looks like right now instead of one that only serves to benefit him.
At a time when the truth is as vital as ever, these small labels on the president’s tweets might offer a moment of clarity.