If anyone knows how important Twitter is to Donald Trump, it's the president.
“Without the tweets, I wouldn't be here,” he told the Financial Times last month.
To which Twitter's co-founder says: Sorry about that, world.
Evan Williams, who still sits on the company's board of directors, recently told the New York Times that he wants to repair the damage he thinks Twitter and the broader Internet have wrought on society in the form of trolls, cyberbullies, live-streamed violence, fake news and — yes — Trump.
“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Williams told the Times. “I was wrong about that.”
“If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry,” he said.
Is it true? Hard to say.
Since Trump became president, his incessant, aggressive and sometimes inaccurate tweets have seemed as much a liability as a political boon. His aides held a social media “intervention” a few weeks ago, according to the Wall Street Journal, trying to convince Trump that unfounded accusations like “Obama had my 'wires tapped'” could endanger him politically and legally.
Trump's Twitter account has been unusually restrained since Thursday — when he reacted to news that a special prosecutor would investigate his campaign for possible ties to Russia by complaining of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”
But on the whole, Twitter and Trump have been simpatico, at least in his telling.
The #1 trend on Twitter right now is #TrumpWon - thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2016
“I have my own form of media,” he told Fox News's Tucker Carlson in March. “There's been nobody in history that got more dishonest media than I've gotten. … Twitter is a wonderful thing for me because I can get the word out.”
On the campaign trail, Trump once described his rapidly growing Twitter following not only as a means to get the truth out, but also as a way to get even with his enemies.
“Someone said I'm the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters,” he told a crowd in South Carolina, air-typing into a pretend phone. “If someone says something badly about you: Bing, bing, bing! I say something really bad.”
The “really bad” things he has said have sometimes threatened to derail his campaign — like an early morning tirade against a former beauty pageant winner, in which Trump accused her without evidence of having made a sex tape.
Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2016
But the mere suggestion that Trump might tone down his tweets drew boos at one rally. If the habit had any political downside, it was hard to notice on Election Day, and Trump kept it up even after security experts warned him about tweeting from the White House.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 17, 2017
It's proved more complicated than tweeting from the campaign trail, at least. The National Archives has ordered Trump to preserve all tweets as presidential records — even misspelled ones he sometimes deletes. And a professor at the U.S. Naval War College is worried that U.S. enemies could be using Trump's tweets to build a psychological profile of the president.
In March, as Trump's wiretapping claims caused another spate of White House chaos, Carlson asked Trump, “Is there anyone in the White House who can say to you, Mister President, please don't tweet that, who you'd listen to?” Tucker Carlson asked Trump in March.
“Let me tell you about Twitter,” Trump replied. “I think maybe I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Twitter.”
He claimed to have “close to 100 million people watching me” on his various social media accounts — a figure the White House social media director repeated to the Financial Times when it interviewed Trump a few weeks later.
Before he stepped down as Twitter's chief executive in 2010, Williams described the technology as a “force for good.”
“Twitter complements traditional media,” he said at SXSW in Austin. “I was talking last night to some guys from CNN. It's helped them change what they do. It's a win-win.”
In his new interview with the New York Times, he said he was wrong about the force-for-good stuff. The Internet was, in fact, “broken,” and the 2016 election was an example.
“It's a very bad thing, Twitter's role in that,” Williams said.
His new company, Medium.com, did not respond to questions about his apology.
Neither did the White House. And Twitter executives have both spoken out against and capitalized on the president's actions.
On the one hand, chief executive Jack Dorsey condemned Trump's executive order temporarily banning visitors from Muslim-majority countries. And the company sued the U.S. government to protect a Trump critic's identity, then dropped the suit and claimed victory a day later.
On the other hand, a research analyst told the Motley Fool that Trump's tweets are probably helping the platform gain users. The company's stock soared after it beat market expectations in its quarterly report in April — though it still lost tens of millions of dollars.
The same month, in Japan, Twitter ran subway ads with Trump's face.
Twitter Japan, now advertising on JR East trains using Trump pic.twitter.com/9PFCmegtLX
— Angela Hsu (徐鏡婷) (@hsu_angelaa) March 29, 2017
“I believe it's really important to hear directly from our leadership,” Dorsey said in an interview with NBC's “Today” show this month.
But Twitter's CEO denied any “alignment” between Twitter and Trump.
“It's more that he's found a tool that's useful for him,” Dorsey said, “and I think a lot of other people have found use in having a conversation about how he's using it and what he thinks.”
A spokeswoman for the company did not directly address Williams's conditional apology but sent a statement: “Twitter provides a platform for people to engage with and discuss issues of importance, and facilitates a more open exchange of information. We continue to see more leaders, around the world, take to Twitter to communicate with their constituents and engage in a conversation.”