Monday, 8 June 2020

Trump Cant Have His Cake And Eat It Too

Donald Trump says the most outrageous things and lies through his teeth on Twitter on a daily basis, but Hugo Rifkind argues that the social media giant is neutering the president's favourite weapon.

Twitter has left Trump punching his own fist

By facing up to its responsibilities as a publisher the social media giant is neutering the president’s favourite weapon

By Hugo - The Times

‘Oh God,” you might be thinking, “don’t write a column about Twitter. Twitter doesn’t matter. Normal people don’t even use it.” The thing is, you know who does use it? The 81.1 million people who follow @realdonaldtrump, and countless millions of others (such as me) who don’t, directly, but end up seeing everything he tweets, anyway. Last week, the president and Twitter went to war. And I bet it mattered to him.

In my first draft of this column, this paragraph was going to detail some of what we might call “Important Donald Trump Twitter Moments”. I’m afraid it was a bit long, though. Also a bit mad. We had plunging stocks in there, and the resignation of a British ambassador, and a threat to bomb Iran, and another threat to buy Greenland. Really, you can look up this stuff for yourself. My point is that it is Twitter that makes living in the world of President Trump feel so much like having a giant malign baby sleeping in the room next door. As in, each morning you wake with a feeling of trepidation about what, in the night, he may have dribbled out and spread around.

The president, though, is not the only reason why Twitter matters. You know who else is on Twitter? The people who circulated the video of a policeman kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died. Also, the people who spread scores of videos of police actions since then, bringing thousands out on to the streets. This is how people are radicalised. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be — far from it — but observe the process, and accept it is real. Of course it matters. Some might say not much matters more.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought about how such firms ought to treat the content that they host. The first is that they should be neutral to the point of indifference, no more responsible for the stuff that users post on them than the invisible air should be to blame for carrying soundwaves. The other, which is my view, is that they should be held accountable for their content, both by themselves and by everybody else.

Donald Trump suddenly wants both of these things at once, but backwards. This is confusing, but I think it’s his fault that he’s confused. Last Wednesday, the president tweeted about American postal votes, stating that they were being rigged by his enemies. Twitter, for the first time, attached a link to his post that said “Get the facts about mail in ballots”, which clicked through to an explanation, by Twitter, that there was no evidence that this was happening. That was it. Shots fired.

Although that’s not the best turn of phrase. Two days on, Twitter did it again. This time the company placed a “This tweet violates the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence” warning over Trump’s already-infamous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet.

They did this even though the president had already responded to the first intervention with a furious, new and wobbly law. Very roughly, it declared that if a social media company edits posts at all, then the law will consider it a traditional publisher, much like a newspaper or magazine, with all the laws and liabilities that entails.

The strange thing about this is that you’d think this would be the last thing Trump would want. Surely, under such a regime, Twitter would end up moderating the incendiary tweets of people like him more, rather than less. His bind, though, is that imposing a free speech obligation on such firms wouldn’t help him either, because the same first amendment that protects Trump’s right to threaten to shoot people also protects Twitter’s right to say, “woah, this is nuts”.

Really, it’s just a threat. “Leave me alone,” Trump was saying to Twitter, “or I will make your life difficult.” And with Facebook, the bigger social media firm, the threat seems to have worked. There, the same message from Trump still circulates. Mark Zuckerberg, the boss, has always insisted his site must not become an arbiter of political speech. “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates,” said chief monkey Nick Clegg last year. If this sounds like humility, don’t be fooled. Facebook wants all the power without the responsibility. It wants to publish, and to profit, and for all the blame to lie elsewhere.

The blame, though, is its. Don’t be fooled, either, by people who would tell you that social media has played no role in the rise of Trump, or in Brexit, or for that matter in the rise of Antifa or Black Lives Matters. Of course it has. Why wouldn’t it have done? Such people simply do not understand the world in which we all now live. Particularly, they do not understand that media consumption today is not only about facts, but also about identity; about who we like and trust and who we dislike and don’t. Whereas Trump, even if only on some idiot savant level, understands all of this very well.

What I like best about his new fight with Twitter is the honesty of it, at least on Twitter’s part. For a couple of years now, the company has quietly sought to clean up its act, blocking and banning extremism and abuse from left and right, while studiously ignoring the big orange pachyderm in the room. Trump, who has always used Twitter as a weapon, suddenly cannot. Look at him, he’s like a man trying to punch his own fist.

Bravo to Twitter for finally understanding its responsibilities. These firms are publishers. They always have been. They should double down and call Trump’s bluff. Bring it on.