President Donald Trump’s Twitter account has been, it’s fair to say, the most influential single account in the history of that social media network. Trump joined Twitter in 2009, and began using the platform to spread conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, while also teasing plans to run for president himself, both in the 2012 cycle (when he didn’t run) and in 2016 (when he did.)
Trump, throughout his two campaigns and his presidency, has used Twitter to insult political enemies foreign and domestic, to pick on individual companies, and even to announce both new policies and the dismissal of administration staffers.
On Monday morning, Trump used his Twitter account to announce the dismissal of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, which marked at least the second time in the Trump presidency that a cabinet secretary had learned of his dismissal from a tweet (John Bolton, the president’s former National Security Adviser, was also fired via tweet.) And since Election Day, Trump has been using the account to spread conspiracy theories about voter fraud, election irregularities, and the baseless notion that he is in fact the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
Throughout his presidency, opponents of Trump have called for Twitter to suspend or even ban Trump from Twitter, arguing that his tweets regularly violate Twitter’s terms of service. Senator Kamala Harris, then a presidential candidate and now the Vice President-elect, pushed in the fall of 2019 to ban Trump’s account. Trump’s supporters have defended his right to tweet, and even some Trump foes have argued that Trump should remain on the platform, either for transparency reasons, or on the notion that Trump’s tweets sometimes tend to incriminate him.
Aside from the 2017 incident in which a rogue staffer briefly deleted his account, Twitter has never taken the step of suspending or banning Trump, although in the run-up to the presidential election, Twitter frequently placed warnings on messages that share misinformation about either voting or the coronavirus, restrictions that have frequently led to Trump’s tweets featuring disclaimers. On Monday afternoon, a pair of Trump tweets—one of which called Nevada “a cesspool of fake votes” and another stating that “Pennsylvania prevented us from watching much of the Ballot count”—were given “this claim about election fraud is disputed” disclaimers.
Conservatives have attacked Twitter for these moves, including in an October hearing in which several Senators berated Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over alleged political bias.
However, that may soon be changing, for the simple reason that Trump soon won’t be the president anymore.
A new report by The Verge states that under its “public interest” policy that applies to world leaders, leaders of countries and others are granted additional leeway on the platform. This is presumably also the reason why Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, remains on Twitter, despite frequent tweets that appear to reference violence.
However, once Trump leaves office, those protections will no longer apply.
“Twitter’s approach to world leaders, candidates, and public officials is based on the principle that people should be able to choose to see what their leaders are saying with clear context,” Twitter told The Verge is a statement this week. “This means that we may apply warnings and labels, and limit engagement to certain tweets. This policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions.”
Twitter has not promised to change anything about its approach to Trump once he leaves office, but the “world leader” language would seem to no longer apply once he is an ex-president, especially the first time he threatens a rival.
Of course, Axios reported Thursday that Trump is “thinking about” a 2024 run for president, which would presumably trigger Twitter’s “candidates for office” provision.
“Generally speaking I don’t think people should be kicked off social media based on their political opinions,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Internet freedom organization Fight For the Future, told The National Interest. “That said, overall I think this is the wrong question to be asking. Instead of going back and forth endlessly about specific moderation decisions made by the companies, or toying with the idea of gutting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (which would open the floodgates for massive Internet censorship), we should be fighting for lawmakers to enact actual policies that rein in the power of Big Tech monopolies.
“These companies shouldn’t have so much centralized power over speech. If they didn’t, none of this would even be worth talking about, because if you didn’t like the moderation practices of one service, you could simply switch to a different one. My take is that instead of speculating about whether Trump might get kicked off Twitter, we should be working to dismantle surveillance capitalism and break up Big Tech’s monopoly power.”
If Trump were to be kicked off of Twitter, there’s a chance he would take millions of users with him, possibly to another platform. Trump’s account, as of the end of October, had 89 million followers, which is the sixth-most of anyone on the platform. Twitter’s most followed user, likely to Trump’s consternation, is Barack Obama, who has 125 million followers. Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Cristiano Ronaldo round out the top five.
President-Elect Joe Biden has 17.9 million followers, although he also uses the platform less than either of his predecessors. Additionally, CBS News reported on November 7 that avoiding the influence of that platform was part of the Biden campaign’s strategy.
“It’s very simple. We turned off Twitter. We stayed away from it,” an aide told reporter Ed O’Keefe. “We knew that the country was in a different headspace than social media would suggest.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.