Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Trump’s Twitter deactivation couldn’t have come at a worse political moment for the platform

November 4, 2017 at 9:00 AM

The 11-minute deactivation of President Trump’s Twitter account couldn’t have come at a worse time for the social network.

The deletion, which Twitter admitted was caused by a rogue employee on their last day of work, is the latest in a line of incidents that could raise concerns that the social networks have partisan biases.

“It gives people an opportunity to continue a narrative of, ‘these platforms are against us,’ ‘they’re censoring us,’ or ‘they’re against us in some way, shape, or form,'" said Jack Gerard, a Republican digital consultant who has worked with Mitt Romney and Medium.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that the individual responsible was a contractor for Twitter, not a full-time employee.

That a single contractor can disable an account used by the most powerful individual in the world as a primary means of communication is troubling. It also once again brings the question of the social media giants’ political agnosticism to the fore.

It's not hard to imagine this being abused by another employee who isn't a fan of Trump,” Christine Rousselle wrote in Townhall.

Given that Twitter, Facebook and Google are under congressional scrutiny, this only gives skeptics further fuel.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) raised the question of the platform’s political neutrality during a Senate Judiciary hearing with Facebook, Twitter and Google on Oct. 31. The purpose of the hearing was to investigate malicious Russian activity on these platforms during the 2016 election, but Cruz took the conversation further.

“Given the percentage of news and political information that Americans receive online through social media or through other online avenues, the prospect of Silicon Valley companies actively censoring the speech or the news content is troubling to anyone who cares about a Democratic process with a robust First Amendment,” Cruz told representatives from the tech giants.

Cruz cited specific incidents involving Google, Facebook and Twitter, including Facebook’s Trending news team, and a temporarily suspended Twitter ad by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a candidate for Senate.

Facebook caught flak in 2016 after reports emerged that the team that once curated its “Trending” news box had suppressed conservative news from appearing in the influential feature. There were many, many issues with Trending, but this flaw in particular raised conservative eyebrows.

Twitter got in hot water last month with Republicans after it temporarily chose to not allow Rep. Marsha Blackburn to advertise her launch video for her U.S. Senate campaign. BuzzFeed reported the video apparently ran afoul of Twitter because of the line “we stopped the sale of baby body parts,” which Twitter deemed “inflammatory.” Blackburn’s claim about fetal tissue is based on a video by a conservative activist that was deemed to have been heavily edited to make misleading claims about Planned Parenthood. However, Twitter’s intervention raised questions about the platform’s political neutrality.

Though the video was not removed, merely prevented from promotion, Blackburn used the incident to rally support from her followers. “Join me in standing up to Silicon Valley!” she declared, much in the way that a politician might attack “Washington” or “the Swamp.”

In response to Cruz’s questioning, Facebook and Twitter’s representatives were quick to defend their platform’s political stance.

“We think of Facebook as a platform for all ideas,” said Colin Stretch, Facebook vice president and general counsel. “We do not in any way discriminate on the basis of viewpoint or ideology.”

“Free expression and free speech is at the core of the Twitter mission, and we do everything we can to enable that,” said Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel.

But the incident with Trump’s Twitter account could make Edgett’s assurances ring hollow. Though we do not yet have all the information about the deletion or the perpetrator’s motives, it did seem that, in this case, Twitter did not do everything it could to enable the expression of a very prominent account.

Trust in information on social media platforms is already pretty low, according to the Pew Research Center. It found that “just 5% of web-using U.S. adults have a lot of trust in the information they get from social media.”

Gerard recommended social networks make a greater effort to hire people with more right-leaning views so as to avoid more partisan pitfalls. “I think they’re missing out on huge opportunities to reach out to certain audiences that are somewhat turned off by the way that content is served up,” he said.

Platforms have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to build trust with users at all points on the political spectrum. Incidents like Trump’s Twitter deactivation aren’t going to help achieve that goal.

Kayla Epstein is the social media editor for National at The Washington Post. She specializes in blending traditional reporting and social media to tell stories and engage readers. She previously worked for the Guardian US, where she worked in support of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the National Security Agency stories.

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