Late last night, Twitter doubled down on its controversial labeling of tweets from President Donald Trump to flag what it views as misleading or offensive material. Yesterday, I wrote a column on Twitter’s policy and a second column on President Trump’s response with an executive order. I have strongly opposed Twitter’s policy on censoring and labeling material, including the decision to correct a tweet from the President on the political debate over main-in voting. Undeterred, Twitter has issued a new warning that a tweet from the President on the rioting in Minneapolis was a violation of its rule for “glorifying violence.” Twitter is now making the case for government action to monitor and control social media. The loser will ultimately be free speech.
Around midnight, President Trump responded to the images of looting and rioting with a tweet that demanded action from the Governor and said that, if there is no action, “we will assume control.” He then added “when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
Last night, I criticized the tweets as inflammatory and unhelpful. However, that does not justify what Twitter has done. The company slapped on a warning that that the tweet “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.” It said that it “has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible.”
Any of Trump’s roughly 80 million followers could still view the tweet if they clicked on “view.” However, due to the action by Twitter, users cannot “like” or retweet the President’s comments.
Twitter could not be doing more to highlight the threat to free speech in first targeting a political tweet on main-voting and then targeting a second tweet under the ambiguous standard of “glorifying violence.” Let’s unpack its message and its meaning.
First, calling for tough law enforcement is a quintessential political statement. My objections was not that it glorified violence but that it was an irresponsible escalation of the rhetoric when Minneapolis police were struggling with a very dangerous and volatile situation.
Second, “glorifying violence” could be a standard used to curtail everything from War and Peace to Looney Tune cartoons. It is an arbitrary standard that invites biased enforcement. For example, Kathy Griffin ( the comedian responsible for the infamous severed Trump head picture) called out to her followers that Trump should be stabbed with a “syringe with nothing but air inside it.” Such reckless and inflammatory speech is all-too-common in today’s politics. I have been hit with violent threats on every social media platform, including people calling for me to be physically attacked on Twitter. That was not flagged or deemed “glorifying violence.” The fact is that I would oppose the censoring or labeling of those comments against me because I remain a firm believer that good speech will prevail over bad speech. It is more important to me to preserve Twitter and other platforms as a forum for free speech.
Third, where Trump escalated the rhetoric, Twitter has escalated its controls. As discussed in the columns, Democratic leaders have called for years for Twitter and other companies to crackdown on political speech deemed misleading or false. It is now plunging headlong into private censorship and speech regulation. This is wrong and a threat to free speech. As a private entity, Twitter falls below the radar of the First Amendment. However, it can cause irreparable damage to free speech by limiting expression for hundreds of millions of users.
Finally, Twitter is making the case against itself. It is given protections under Section 320 because it has claimed to being neutral supplier of virtual space for people to speak with one another. Roughly 80 million people want to hear from Trump, not Twitter. Yet, Twitter has again inserted itself into that conversation to convey its own view of what is being discussed. Imagine if the telephone company took it upon itself to periodically interrupt calls to express its view of what was just said. If Twitter insists on being an active participant in such postings, it is changing its legal status and morphing into a viewpoint publisher.
I am still leery of the government intervening on social media. Free speech has few advocates in this fight. It is primary a struggle between Twitter, Trump, and the Democrats over who controls such speech. Indeed, yesterday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for resisting speech monitoring and censorship as a matter of free speech. Pelosi lashed out that those who want to preserve a free speech zone are “all about making money,” ignoring free speech advocates who have no financial interest in these companies. Pelosi said that opposing such monitoring means that social media companies simply want “to make money at the expense of the truth and the facts” and are trying to “hide under the freedom of speech.”
Twitter had the chance to admit error and return to neutrality in the interest of free speech. It is clearly more concerned with expressing its views than preserving its forum. Frankly, I would not care about such self-inflicted wounds except that free speech will likely suffer the collateral damage from Twitter’s glorifying speech controls.