SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter on Friday answered calls to block President Trump from its platform for inciting violence. The answer was “No.”
In its corporate blog, the company (TWTR) did not name Trump, but said “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.”
The statement — an echo of comments its CEO Jack Dorsey has made — follows this week’s increasingly bellicose back-and-forth between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and mounting calls from protesters to remove Trump for violating the service’s ban on inciting violence.
It began with a speech Kim gave on Monday saying he had a button ready to launch nuclear weapons installed in his desk.
The next day Trump tweeted that he, too, has a nuclear button, “but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Critics feared the president’s tweet was bringing the world close to nuclear war, while people across the globe worried the taunts the two leaders were trading could all too easily develop into actual military hostilities between countries that both boast nuclear arsenals.
A flood of messages began on social media Tuesday calling for Twitter to block Trump’s tweets, with many saying they had reported Trump for violating Twitter’s terms of service — the same route a person would take if someone were using Twitter to harass or threaten them personally.
On Wednesday, a group called Resistance SF held a protest outside of Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. The group used lights to display a large message on the side, writing “Be a hero: Ban Trump,” “Would Twitter ban Hitler?” and “Trump or @jack must go” a call for Dorsey to step down.
— Jason Wages (@jason_wages) January 3, 2018
The president’s staff mocked the idea.
“While you would love nothing more than to see a Twitter ToS Violation for handle: @realDonaldTrump, you and all of your liberal friends have NOTHING. Keep calling TwitterStop trying to be the NEWS. Just report the NEWS & try keeping it REAL!” the White House Director of Social Media, Dan Scarino Jr., wrote on Twitter.
TY for update @BrianStelter! I know you’d love nothing more than to report via CNN, “@realDonaldTrump’s account has violated Twitters ToS & action is being taken.” I’m confident thats not going to happen. Why? POTUS doesn’t draw FAKE RED LINES! Please try and go report REAL NEWS! https://t.co/QqPPixJB6f
— Dan Scavino Jr. (@Scavino45) January 3, 2018
The argument made by those who would block the president is that his statements can be construed as condoning nuclear war against North Korea, and are therefore threats against the people of that nation.
As Twitter made clear on Friday, although its Terms of Service say threatening people online can be seen as abusive and grounds for removal, when a world leader tweets, it is by definition newsworthy and therefore protected.
In its posting, Twitter also seemed to address speculation that it wouldn’t block the president because his unprecedented popularity on the platform was crucial for its financial stability. “No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions,” Twitter said.
Trump’s tweets, both before and after taking office, have spurred much discussion.
Those who like him love the unfettered access his tweets grant to his thoughts and laud his straightforward statements and bracing method of phrasing them — so very different from the cautious, statesman-like utterances of previous presidents.
“There’s a legitimate debate over whether he is advancing U.S. geopolitical aims by doing what he’s doing,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former special assistant to President George W. Bush.
Still, he said, “we have to ask whether it’s good for a democracy such as our to allow a corporation to censor our president.”
Those who dislike him are appalled at what they term his impulsive, sometimes juvenile Twitter rants and retweets they say have given a tacit show of approval to hate groups.
Twitter’s Friday statement about world leaders on its platform makes clear that in the context of political figures, the newsworthiness of their public statements is paramount.
Blocking them “would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions,” it said.
The First Amendment doesn’t apply
Twitter has the legal right to block anyone it might choose to because the First Amendment is about the power of the government to abridge freedom of speech, not corporations.
Under the Constitution, while the government can’t stop someone from speaking, Twitter is well within its rights to do whatever it wants with its platform, said William Bennett Turner, a lawyer, First Amendment expert and professor at the University of California Berkeley. Even some who dislike his statements believe the remarkably uninhibited chance Twitter gives the public of to know the mind of the president is healthy for democracy.
“There are no words to express my loathing for this president, and what he says in his daily tweets is beyond the pale for me,” Turner said. “However, while you may hate what he thinks, at least you know what he thinks.”