For 11 minutes on Thursday evening, Donald Trump did not exist. Or at least, that’s what his Twitter page said.
Twitter first attributed the temporary deletion of the president’s feed to “human error.” As it turned out, that was only half-right. An employee (presumably not a Trump supporter) on their last day on the site’s staff decided to go out in style by expelling the commander in chief. To the many who called these hundreds of seconds “the happiest” of their lives, this customer support representative was a hero. To the president, tweeting again the next morning, it was a sign that “the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact.”
Finally? It shouldn’t be news to Trump that most Americans see his Twitter feed as the easiest way for the world to know what the president is really thinking every day. To his critics, that’s worrisome. To his fans, it’s reassuring: There’s no “fake news media” to prevent the president from getting out his message. As Trump himself has said, “When I use what has turned out to be my very powerful Social Media … I can go around them.”
And that’s what makes the 11 minutes of Trumpless Twitter so terrifying. A single employee was able to click the leader of the free world’s unfiltered channel to its inhabitants into nonexistence. With his tweets, Trump has provoked North Korea’s Kim Jong Un into vowing to “tame the deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” He has caused stocks to drop. Thankfully, the Twitter prankster decided to take down the president’s account rather than use it to challenge Kim to a nuclear duel. But he could have chosen differently, and countless hackers who have no trouble finding their way into other celebrities’ accounts might not be so circumspect.
Twitter isn’t treating Trump’s account like anyone else’s, and in some cases the site has been called out for it. When commentators called for his suspension from the site for tweets about North Korea that violated terms of service forbidding “violent threats” and “wishes for the physical harm, death, or disease of individuals or groups,” Twitter begged off on grounds of “newsworthiness.”
But when it comes to the account’s security, Twitter hasn’t been so transparent. Observers have been speculating about what measures the site may be undertaking to protect what a bad actor could use as a weapon of mass destruction, and Thursday’s incident offers an answer: not much. That’s a huge security risk, and Twitter’s executives will have to show its users they’re prepared to do something about it.
While they’re at it, they should take a broader look at what Thursday’s events tell them. It’s not only Trump who relies on Twitter; it’s all of us. The employee who decided to take Trump off the Web set the conversation topic for a whole country for an evening, but Twitter’s other employees do the same thing every day when they regulate which content does and does not have a place on their platform — from Russian propaganda to false news stories to harassment and hate speech to “inflammatory” advertisements. Thursday’s short-lived shutdown was yet another sign that Twitter has great power. Now comes the responsibility part.