Is the social media company so relaxed about Trumps tweets because it gains so much from them, asks Christian Christensen, journalism professor at Stockholm University
What does it take to get kicked off of Twitter, even for just one day? How about issuing to 46 million followers a threat of nuclear holocaust against a sovereign state that will claim an untold number of lives? Not even that if you are an elected leader, it seems.
In a recent blogpost, Twitter wrote that: Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. In addition, Twitter management argued that blocking politicians such as Trump, would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.
Even if the defence of its non-intervention on Trump had stopped there, the explanation would have raised a number of troubling questions for the company about its supposed commitment to cracking down on threats of violence and online harassment. In what can only be described as perverse logic, Twitter is arguing that it is precisely the most powerful people in the world who will have their ability to communicate with followers protected, as they play a critical role in public conversation due to their outsized impact on our society.
So, the message is: if you want to threaten someone on Twitter, make sure to get yourself elected as a head of state first. Twitter did not stop there, however: We review tweets by leaders within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly. No one persons account drives Twitters growth, or influences these decisions.
Even the most generous of critics would be hard-pressed to imagine that the sheer volume of traffic generated by Trump his tweets, the retweets of his tweets, the tweets citing his tweets, the news stories about his tweets, the tweets about the news stories about his tweets in no way influences Twitters decision-making over the presidents account. This is serious money. When a barrage of complaints came in from users after Trump infamously retweeted three Islamophobic videos posted by the far-right group Britain First, Twitter refused to have these few tweets removed on the grounds that they wanted to show every side of the issue.
This isnt a call for censorship, but a call to consider how powerful social media actors promote and leverage their free speech credentials for financial gain while at the same time engaging in content and user regulation that is less than consistent or transparent, not to mention creating a clear hierarchy where some users are more important than others. If Twitter wants to argue that Trump is a special case who cannot have his account suspended or tweets deleted because he is central to democratic debate, then he must also be made a special case who cannot block followers. And, on this issue, I have personal experience: Trump blocked me on Twitter last year after I criticised him over what I considered to be his hypocrisy over John McCain.
So, after telling me that Trumps tweets are important information people should be able to see and debate, I am then told that its fine that Trump is given the freedom to stop me from hearing him. How this squares with a commitment to democratic communication is unclear, and platforms such as Twitter have spent years pitching themselves as important actors in the democratic process. But Twitter is a private company, and can decide who it verifies, suspends or kicks off.
There is no pure right to free speech on Twitter, any more than there is a right to upload pictures on Facebook or a right to post videos to YouTube. However, in the US context, Trump blocking people on Twitter could be seen as a free speech violation as the government (which Trump represents) cannot restrict speech in public forums unless it can be argued that such speech would lead to violence. The issue, of course, is whether Trumps account on a privately owned platform should qualify as such a forum.
The bottom line of Twitters refusal to punish Trump, and its acceptance of his blocking followers, connects to the political economy of media and how the bars for entry and dismissal are periodically raised and lowered in the pragmatic service of profit. When the ESPN journalist Jemele Hill (who had previously tweeted that Trump was a bigot and a white supremacist) was suspended for two weeks by ESPN for criticising National Football League owners for their position on anti-racism protests, the president of the United States used his Twitter account to single her out to his huge number of followers, leading to a torrent of online abuse.
How the targeting of an individual by a national leader with disturbing results that Trump must surely have known would come can be rationalised by Twitter as key to democracy is a mystery, but the juxtaposition of a commercial journalists suspension from her job for offering an opinion, and President Trumps freedom to attack her on a commercial forum, is a stark reminder that speech is freer for some, and far more expensive for others.
Christian Christensen is professor of journalism studies at Stockholm University. His work focuses on the relationship between technology, journalism and political power.