Sunday morning: Church bells and bird calls. Coupon-stuffed newspapers. “Meet the Press.” And, in America in 2017, a tidal wave of bizarre Internet activity courtesy of the leader of the free world.
True to form, President Trump jump-started his week Sunday with a string of 140-character thought-bursts aimed at his 38.5 million followers. The lineup included minting a nickname for North Korea’s dictator (“Rocket Man”) and outlining his schedule (“Important meetings and calls”).
The president’s thumbs also found the “retweet” button for a few memes created by supporters, including one that has now ignited its own controversy. Posted from user CNN SUCKS, the short clip welds footage of Trump teeing off on a golf course to an image of Hillary Clinton stumbling while walking onto an airplane in 2011. Due to a manipulated image of a golf ball bouncing off the former presidential candidate’s back before her tumble, the GIF suggests Trump’s long ball knocked Clinton down.
The retweet immediately fired up accusations that the president was promoting violence against women. It also was reminiscent of an earlier Sunday morning Trump retweet with an overtly violent theme — in July the president shared a doctored professional wrestling clip depicting Trump body-slamming CNN. Although that GIF was blasted by both the network and Democratic lawmakers (“crude, false, and unpresidential content”), the president still shared — then quickly deleted — a cartoon image of a “Trump train” plowing into a CNN reporter only three days after a man attending a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was accused of driving his car into a counterprotest group and killing a woman.
While those earlier violent depictions could arguably have been said to be aimed at an institution, not an individual, the Clinton GIF was clearly a shot at the president’s former campaign rival. But Clinton is also on a highly visible book tour. A federal judge was mindful enough of that fact to revoke pharma-bro Martin Shkreli’s bail after the convicted hedge fund manager promised $5,000 to any Facebook follower who could get a strand of her hair. An actual possibility of violence was tied to that tweet. The tweet might also be the first instance in U.S. history where one Secret Service-protected individual suggested violence against another Secret Service-protected individual.
Yet the response to Sunday’s retweet has been relatively muted. Some believe Trump’s Twitter account has jolted sensibilities so often — from ghastly attacks on cable talking heads Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to baseless accusations about Trump Tower wiretaps — that outlandish is the new reigning norm. But GIF-gate is another opportunity to return to a question that has been rumbling online for more than a year: What exactly does Trump have to do to get kicked off Twitter?
Twitter’s boundaries on what is and what is not appropriate on the platform have been murky since the beginning. Company leadership is famously reluctant to step into debates concerning censorship. “Essentially, Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content,” Biz Stone, the company’s co-founder, said in 2008 in response to early complaints. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote in an internal company memo in 2015, according to the Verge.
The company has since clarified their terms of service. Today, the rules are pretty clear, particularly on “abusive” behavior: “In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.” The terms also prohibit “Violent threats (direct or indirect)”: “You may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.”
The guidelines additionally ban “hateful conduct”: “You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.”
In practice, however, the company’s decision-making goes on behind a curtain. Twitter does not comment on specific account activity, creating confusion about what exactly prompts Twitter to act.
For example, in July 2016, the company booted right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after the former Breitbart editor incited his Twitter followers to harass “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones. Many of the attacks were outright racist. The company, however, only jumped into the situation after Jones herself complained online. “Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines when you let spread like that,” the actress posted on her account.
In August 2016, YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg was suspended from Twitter after posting a tweet about having “joined isis.” The posting, however, was in reference to an Internet joke. Once BusinessInsider published a piece pointing that out, Twitter reinstated the account.
And in September 2017, BuzzFeed reported one account —@themoodforluv — was suspended after one of the user’s tweets went viral. According to an image from the user, Twitter claimed the account had violated the terms of service regarding “targeted abuse.”
The offending tweet?
A light dig at pop star Taylor Swift: “no offense but is taylor swift ever gonna grow out of her ‘i wrote your name in my burn book’ phase she’s a grown ass woman.”
Under such a capricious system, Twitter has the wiggle-room to issue passes when it sees fit, or to ignore the behavior of high-profile users that may be in conflict with the terms of service.
“Banning is definitely a conversation that people are having, but only because we have to have the conversation,” an unnamed Twitter employee told the Verge in January. “It would take something really deplorable for a ban, and I highly doubt even Trump is that stupid.”
For some, however, Sunday’s Clinton GIF was deplorable enough.