It has been one of the greatest love affairs in American politics.
Since joining Twitter more than a decade ago, Donald Trump has delivered 52,000 tweets or retweets and accumulated 80 million followers. He uses the platform to threaten war, hire and fire staff, goad perceived foes and stoke partisan divisions. Twitter, which did not exist 15 years ago, has become one of the most famous companies in the world, the new first draft of presidential history.
But now the relationship is on the rocks.
For the first time, Twitter this week added a factchecking tag to two of Trump’s tweets when he made unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting. The president struck back on Thursday with an executive order threatening social media companies with new free speech regulations.
Asked if he had considered deleting his account, Trump replied: “If we had a fair press in this country, I would do that in a heartbeat. There’s nothing I’d rather do than get rid of my whole Twitter account.”
A day later, in another first, Twitter hid a tweet by Trump behind a warning accusing him of breaking its rules by “glorifying violence” in a message that said looters at protests in Minneapolis would be shot. The president lashed out again in – naturally – a tweet, complaining: “Twitter is doing nothing about all of the lies & propaganda being put out by China or the Radical Left Democrat Party. They have targeted Republicans, Conservatives & the President of the United States.”
Facebook did not remove Trump’s same post from its site with its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, putting clear daylight between his approach, which exempts politicians from a third-party factchecking program, and that of his Twitter counterpart, Jack Dorsey. As for the president, whose election owed much to social media, he now appears to be biting the hand that feeds him.
“I think the last thing Trump wants is to shut down Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” said Roger McNamee, author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. “He’s completely dependent on them and, by the way, they on him. The symbiosis is complete.
“Now, I think what Twitter did today relative to the looters and shooters tweet is actually very brave. It’s also incredibly obvious and something they should’ve done years ago and something Facebook should do, because if you look at the public safety aspect of the terms of service, that tweet is an obvious violation and, coming from the president, it has enormous risk of causing public safety harm.”
McNamee, a co-founder of the private equity firm Elevation Partners and an early investor in Facebook, Google and Amazon, added: “The fact that Facebook left it up speaks volumes about the different approaches of the two companies because how big do you think Twitter is without Trump? Is it half its current size? Is it less than that? This is a very brave thing for them to do.”
Trump’s use of Twitter offers a real-time window on his consciousness at all hours of day and night. Some of his posts are vivid reactions to items he has seen on the Fox News network. Others hurl insults at political foes and the media or traffic in incendiary racism. In the past month they have reached a crescendo of abuse, demagoguery and conspiracy theories, including a baseless accusation of murder levelled at a TV host.
Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and broadcaster, said: “His Twitter account has been central to his presidency and he’s obviously obsessed with it. That’s what makes this so strange: if he were to shut down Twitter, he obviously would deprive himself of a platform. If he succeeds in having the law changed, it would backfire on him because it would then make the social media platforms liable for his lies and his slanders.”
Like a much-hyped executive order in April that threatened to ban immigration, but turned out to have numerous exceptions, the bark of Thursday’s executive order is likely to be worse than its bite.
It attacks legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for users’ content, but a change in the law would require an act of Congress. Observers detected a blatant attempt to deflect attention from Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which this week claimed its 100,000th life in America, and an outbreak of violence after the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis.
Sykes, founder and editor-at-large of the Bulwark website, added: “To be attacking a private company because it factchecked him is a disturbing look, even for Trump. The willingness to use the full weight of federal government to go in and punish a private company for factchecking one of his tweets. Twitter did not censor his tweet. It answered his tweet with a factcheck. In other words, it answered speech with more speech, which is the way the first amendment is supposed to work.”
Trump expressed anger last year after Facebook banned seven users including the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, rightwing media stars Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, notorious for using antisemitic language. He and fellow conservatives have long claimed without evidence that Silicon Valley tech companies are biased against them.
Twitter first announced in early 2018 that it would not block world leaders or remove their controversial tweets, though it subsequently announced that it could apply warning labels and obscure the tweets of world leaders if they used their accounts to threaten or abuse others. Despite this week’s skirmishes, the prospect of the US president being banned still seems remote.
Sykes commented: “I think that’s unlikely to happen. Banning Trump allows him to play the victim card and say, ‘Look, I am the president and they won’t let me speak’. So it makes him a martyr. It’s probably better to factcheck him. On the other hand, that’s going to be extremely difficult. Are they going to factcheck every one of his tweets?”
“Does that mean they’re going to be under tremendous pressure to factcheck everyone else? There’s a danger for Twitter that he will drag them down the rabbit hole, that he will make their factchecking of him into another massive distraction issue.”
Trump has put Twitter front and centre in public life but he is not its most followed personality. To his probable chagrin, number one spot is held by Obama with 118 million, according to Brandwatch, ahead of singers Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, singer Lady Gaga and TV personality Ellen DeGeneres. Then comes Trump in ninth place.
Rick Tyler, a political analyst, said: “He needs Twitter because it’s his vehicle to communicate with millions of people who follow him. I’m not sure Twitter needs him and, if it does need him, then it’s a flawed business model because Trump one day won’t be with us. He’s an old man and so if Twitter’s business model depends on Donald Trump, it’s a very short-lived business model.”
The president’s threat to terminate his love-hate relationship with social media rings somewhat hollow. Biographer Michael D’Antonio describes him as “a troll at heart” who used the New York tabloids to similar effect before Twitter and Facebook came along. He said of the current feud: “I think it’s about Twitter being his drug and Jack Dorsey threatening to limit his supply.
“It has the effect of a drug on him, so the pleasure that he gets from tweeting and from the response to his tweet probably gives him a rush and I think even the thought of it being constrained is painful, probably physically painful in his own body.
“It’s also him encountering someone who can hold him responsible and, as he makes clear, he’s never responsible for anything, and that is enraging. It’s like the kid who’s been let loose in a candy store and suddenly an adult says, ‘Well, that’s all done now, it’s time for you to leave,’ and he doesn’t want to leave so he’s having a tantrum.”