By Stephen L. Carter
MY VIEW of the dust-up between Twitter and President Donald Trump is simple: The company should treat him exactly like it would treat any other user. But I’ll also admit to a degree of concern about how it treats other users, particularly the company’s growing determination to regulate opinions expressed on its site.
Twitter, long criticized by the left for its refusal to flag or even delete presidential tweets for which a less-known user might be suspended, finally decided to add warnings to a pair of Trump posts fulminating about the possibility of fraud when ballots go by mail. Given the president’s history of tweets that are grossly offensive, actually false or both — like last week’s despicable attacks on Joe Scarborough of MSNBC, which I won’t dignify by repeating or linking to — mail-in balloting is an odd place to draw the line. But the line’s been drawn, and the president’s response is a childish tantrum, threatening to shut Twitter down.
Twitter is a private company and it gets to set its own rules. If you break them, the company can alter the terms on which it will serve you. Yes, there are arguments for treating the president differently. For one thing, there’s a case to be made for the respect due the office, whatever one’s opinion of the occupant at a given moment. For another, Trump’s every tweet receives such a level of media scrutiny that flagging what Twitter considers untruths will be redundant. And given the belief by many of the president’s supporters that the news media distort his every word, social media might be his only means to stay in touch with his base.
Those arguments are not without force, but they’re not persuasive. I’d rather that Trump used social media less, and with some semblance of dignity. If he’s going to use Twitter, however, he doesn’t get an exemption because of the office he holds.*
But that’s far from the end of the matter. I worry about the rules Twitter imposes. On the one hand, I admire the company’s efforts to help users sort between bad information and good on such issues as vaccinations, and I’m intrigued by the possibility that the platform might imitate Wikipedia in having users themselves moderate content. On the other hand, when it comes to arguments over policy and politics, I’d rather that no institution, public or private, set itself up as arbiter.
Twitter, for example, has lately adopted a policy of placing labels on “potentially harmful” tweets about COVID-19, including those that go against the advice of public health officials. But that’s a dreadful standard. In the first place, public health officials are government employees, meaning criticism of and disagreement with their edicts should be encouraged. Moreover, they can err. I’m old enough to remember being instructed in no uncertain terms not to buy a face mask.
Twitter relies heavily on expert systems to flag falsehoods, but those systems need, let us say, some further work. For instance, tweets about the silly theory that COVID-19 is spread by 5G cell towers are being slapped with warning labels — even if the tweets are about how silly the theory is.
Which isn’t to say that humans will do any better. Trying to figure out who’s engaging in hyperbole and who’s lying is a thankless task … and a highly subjective one. Even with the best will in the world, one’s biases are bound to creep into the work of evaluation.
On the right, Twitter’s supposed tendency to lean left in applying its own rules about flagging content has become an article of faith. Even should those criticisms turn out to be correct,** Twitter would still be a private company entitled to its biases. True, some think social media platforms have grown so powerful that it’s time to regulate them as public forums, but that’s not a view I share. Even if I did, the rules right now are the rules right now, and if the president wants to use the platform, he has to comply.
Still, I find it strange that the company has chosen to draw the line at Trump’s criticism of voting by mail. On the merits, the debate over mail-in ballots is a perfectly legitimate one. Like a lot of people, I have trouble seeing how we can hold an election this fall if everybody has to wait in line as usual. But I believe in debate. Even when I’m for something, I’m eager to understand the arguments of those who disagree. I neither want nor need a parent to warn me not to pay attention.
It’s hard to make the case for unfettered debate when we have a president who refuses to stop yammering, and whose tongue (and tweets) far too often tend toward comments unguarded, offensive and inaccurate. But a principle isn’t a principle if you only apply it to the easy cases. And my fear here is the same as always: Once we start down the road of editing error and offensiveness out of the world of argument, not even Orwell knows where we’ll wind up. It won’t surprise you to learn that I’m among those who’d rather not find out.
* And, not incidentally, the company isn’t preventing Trump from speaking to his base; at the worst, Twitter can be accused of adding a bit of editorializing when he does.
** Their favorite exhibit is the 2018 statement by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that his company was so liberal that “conservative-leaning” employees “don’t feel safe to express their opinions at the company.” But he cited this as a problem he hoped to address.