Had @RealDonaldTrump not been president, would his Twitter account have been suspended? Possibly? Probably? But would it have been for his “conservative” message or the batshit crazy and often bizarrely false content? No matter. He is president, and as president, got a special pass because the things he twits matter in a different way.
This is a view into what the President of the United States publicly says, which has public value even when it’s false, dangerous or nuts. Indeed, it may be more valuable to see the crazy stuff so that we know what Trump is spewing. Whether it’s because he means it or he’s gaming the heads of the faithful or the outraged is a separate question. Whether he’s spewing something outrageous to divert attention from his failings is a separate question. That he’s the president, and this is what he’s twitting, is the point, and so who is Twitter to deny the American public from seeing what he’s twitting?
But it’s not that there isn’t a point to Trump’s Executive Order reinventing the statutory protections of 47 U.S.C. § 230. What makes Twitter, or more precisely, whomever is making the actual call on behalf of a private entity, the arbiter of truth? The conflict is that private entities can make whatever call they want without government interference, but the point that Twitter, Facebook and Google have become the village square, and thus exert significant control over the information flow, is undeniable.
While the First Amendment precludes the government from dictating what expression is permissible, are Zuck and @Jack any more reliable sources of truth? This is a battle between constitutional law, statutory law, and reality in the trenches. Trump didn’t invent the problem, as it’s been recognized for a long time, and it’s hardly a conservative issue as Biden supports the evisceration of Section 230 and the fringe academics of fragility like Mary Anne Franks have been screaming for censorship of what they deem unworthy for years. That darn Section 230, the one that allowed the internet to thrive and the United States to be the center of the internet universe, also prevents the government, Trump at the moment, from challenging the hegemony of private companies performing quasi-governmental functions.
While Trump didn’t start this problem, has he brought it to a head by issuing an EO that pretty much everyone concedes is unlawful?
In the scheme of Stupid Trump Twits, this barely registers. It’s nothing compared to his insane Morning Joe murder accusations. And, putting aside the usual dumbness such as his having no control over the National Guard, what’s happening in Minneapolis is a legitimate issue of concern as it went from protest to rioting and looting, and then the seizure and burning of a police precinct.
But of all the Trump twits, this was the one where Twitter chose to make its stand. Does it “glorify violence”? It’s dumb, sure, though no more so than others, but it’s hard to see how it glorifies violence. Then again, it’s hard to see what standards, if any, Twitter purports to use to make any decision about anything. It’s not exactly clear in the sense of actual adult definitions, and its decisions haven’t exactly proven comprehensible much of the time.
Legally, Twitter wins, whether its “editorial” commentary is right or not, because it’s a private entity and entitled to be as wrong as it wants to be without the government telling it what to do. But even though Trump is probably the worst messenger possible, the message isn’t without some practical merit. Regardless of whether the EO will survive scrutiny, or have any serious impact on anything, it’s a shot across the bow of the internet.
Secretly, many who hate Trump won’t be unhappy that it happened. While they abhor the idea that Trump might get to dictate the content of expression on internet platforms, also love the idea that internet platforms can be brought under control. After all, when the next election comes, it will be their turn to control speech and they desperately desire control.
What would Twitter boss Jack Dorsey do? He could fire up his legal team. He could do nothing. He could suspend Trump’s account. Or he could add an editorial comment that Trump’s twit violated “Twitter Rules,” an oxymoron at best or perhaps a message in itself, that would further enrage Darth Cheeto. Or as some might see it, play into Trump’s hand. Maybe there’s method to his madness.
Is this a problem that can be resolved by legal analysis, by the pragmatics of an internet subject to governmental control that ends the hegemony of Social Media Titans or by the bloodshed in Minneapolis? Maybe this issue will be addressed by the courts, or by Congress if it finds the time, but maybe this is a street fight that’s been coming for a while and, Trump being Trump, has finally burst into the open.
Trump dropped the glove and Jack picked it up. Winter is coming.