President Trump has all but admitted he wouldn’t be in the White House without Twitter. But as his battle with the company escalated Friday, the question is whether he can stay there without his preferred social media platform, if the dispute comes to that.
Trump is so far showing no signs of leaving Twitter, which he’s boasted in the past is like owning his own newspaper. He’d rather fight than switch. But Twitter this week pushed back on Trump’s online practices, for the first time adding a fact-check to misleading tweets about mail-in voting. And early Friday morning, the platform hid a Trump tweet that it said incited violence by warning looters in Minneapolis they would be shot.
With the presidential election only months away, and his rallies deemed a public health threat in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, Twitter’s new measures are not only a soft blow to his communication strategy, they also are a jab at his ego, experts said.
"This is something that is as important to him as hamburgers and french fries,” Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer, said of the president’s relationship to his Twitter account. “He really, really loves it.”
Trump has wielded Twitter to energize his most ardent supporters, distract from the day’s headlines, and speak directly to the American public. If Facebook is critical to the way his campaign and allies target specific audiences and test political messages, Twitter has served as Trump’s personal outlet, his favorite weapon to manipulate the national conversation.
With the country trying to make its way out of a global pandemic, and national outrage over the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police hitting a boiling point, Trump turned to Twitter in the early hours of Friday to blast “thugs” and “the radical left."
“Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way,” Trump tweeted after hours of protests in Minneapolis. “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. ‘Thank you!’ ”
Twitter removed the tweet from public view, saying it violated the company’s rules about “glorifying violence.” But people could still see it by clicking a link next to the Twitter message because the company “determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”
“Twitter is full of [expletive] — more and more people are beginning to get it,” tweeted Daniel Scavino Jr., the White House deputy chief of staff for communications.
But disinformation and terrorism analysts called the measures appropriate, if “gentle.” They saw Trump’s feud with Twitter as part of his playbook of distractions at a time when the nation is still struggling to recover from the health and economic damage of the pandemic and racial tensions over police conduct have erupted once more.
“We could be talking about 100,000 deaths, we could be talking about police brutality, we could be talking about the high unemployment rate,” said Nikolas Guggenberger, executive director of the Yale Information Society Project. “Instead, we are talking about whether Twitter adding a comment to his tweet is potentially wrong.”
Trump has long used his Twitter account to publicly demonize groups and promote violence in an unspecific way, a technique known to extremism experts as “stochastic terrorism,” said Juliette Kayyem, who was an assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security under former president Barack Obama. His use of the word “thug” is a case in point, she said.
“The language he used on Twitter [Friday] was no longer a dog whistle; it was a whistle,” she said. “He crossed the line.”
The feud between Trump and Twitter and other social media platforms started after the 2016 election. Following revelations of Russian online interference in the election, tech activists, disinformation analysts, and liberal advocates demanded that the platforms do more to curb the spread of false claims, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Conservatives countered that such measures would constitute censorship and an infringement on free speech.
Twitter launched a new volley in the fight this month when it started fact checking Trump’s tweets, stripping informational links at the bottom of tweets that falsely alleged mail-in voting would lead to election fraud. The actions came after Trump amplified a debunked conspiracy theory alleging MSNBC host Joe Scarborough killed an intern decades ago. This prompted the intern’s widower to write to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking that his company remove the tweets. It did not.
In response, Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to crack down on social media platforms attempting to moderate content, and to weigh stripping away their legal liability protections. It was a move Trump first floated last July when the White House hosted a social media summit with right-wing and extremist social media influencers — and one that disinformation experts said would be difficult to enforce. If it were enforced, it actually would hurt Trump because more of what he posts could be removed to avoid lawsuits.
“It is good for Donald Trump’s politics,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “It is an incoherent and frankly nonsensical policy.”
But Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and California Republican Party official who has sued Twitter over breach of contract issues for kicking people off the platform, said stricter regulations were a long time coming for companies that have long run wild and abused "what was intended as limited immunity.”
“To me, that’s an unfair business practice,” she said of Twitter’s actions against Trump. “It is a big attraction to us to be on the network where we can learn directly from the president about what he is working on, what he is thinking."
The immediacy and interaction Twitter offers has been a major draw for Trump as well since he sent his first tweet in May 2009, political analysts said. Since 2012, he has bragged about his Twitter following, credited it with his political rise, and complained about perceived biases against his followers.
“Well, let me tell you about Twitter,” he told Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson in 2017. “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter, because I get such a fake press, such a dishonest press.”
Even when D’Antonio first started chronicling Trump more than five years ago, Trump “was already very drunk on the technology,” D’Antonio said. He takes as much pleasure in inflicting pain on the platform as he does from receiving affirmation, he added, and seems to derive an endorphin rush from every response.
“It is a very dangerous mix,” D’Antonio said of Trump’s Twitter use. “His cartoonish view of himself, the energy that comes from social media, and the authority to actually act in real life to make his social media truth something real on the ground.”