The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s tweets were harmful. And just to be clear, Twitter helped.

Former Twitter employee Anika Collier Navaroli. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

For every Donald Trump, would that there were 100 Anika Collier Navarolis, the Twitter whistleblower who testified about the social media platform’s role in enabling Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The former president’s towering capacity for babble via social media was anything but harmless, as we learned last year. Anyone who doubted his dark intentions after he lost reelection to Joe Biden — including those who appreciated his inciteful, not to be confused with insightful, tweets — must now admit that harm was done. Not just to the Capitol but to our Constitution and the peaceful transfer of power that is a miracle of our democratic republic.

And just to be clear, Twitter helped.

One might even argue, after hearing Navaroli’s testimony in July before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, that the company, knowing full well that Trump’s tweets were dangerous, enabled his rabble-rousing.

The day before the attack, as pro-Trump forums on Twitter turned increasingly incendiary, Navaroli became concerned that her company wasn’t doing enough about messages from “a violent crowd that was locked and loaded,” she told congressional investigators. That night, in an internal message to colleagues, she said she wrote: “When people are shooting each other tomorrow, I will try and rest in the knowledge that we tried.”

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Bottom line: Twitter didn’t apply the same standards to Trump that were applied to others because the company enjoyed the “power” of hosting the president of the United States, according to Navaroli. Trump had 88 million followers when Twitter finally banned him from the platform two days after the attack.

That eventual action was too little too late for the five people who died as a result of that day and the more than 100 officers who suffered injuries. Navaroli has had her own personal safety concerns, which is why the committee protected her identity — until Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) revealed it in a tweet Thursday that praised her courage.

In an exclusive interview with The Post’s Drew Harwell published the same day, she described testifying before the committee as “terrifying.” Ultimately, she told The Post, her fears took a back seat to her belief that extremism and political disinformation on social media had become an “imminent threat not just to American democracy, but to the societal fabric of our planet.”

She said she didn’t keep these concerns to herself while at Twitter, and she left the company last year. But Twitter officials, she told the committee, had been proud of the status the president’s newsworthy feed conveyed to the company. And it protected a seemingly deranged president who has so cowed Republican Party leaders that no one — even now — has the courage to say what has long been obvious. He was, and is, unfit to be president.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment Friday. In an earlier statement, vice president for public policy Jessica Herrera-Flanigan said the company took “unprecedented steps” to respond to threats during the 2020 election, and “leveraged” those steps to respond quickly to the Jan. 6 attack.

Ask yourself: What kind of president has time to post thousands of tweets, as Trump did? What previous president would have so recklessly threatened a dangerous enemy as Trump did in 2018 when he tweeted to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, “I too have a Nuclear Button.” What kind of person says such a thing? Certainly, no other president we’ve ever known.

Twitter’s application has enhanced global communication as no other previous platform, but its virtues are also its defects. Quick, easy, short and spontaneous, tweeting is tailor-made for the 2-year-old temperament, as well as for the impulsive, immature, id-driven psyche of our former president.

Thus, the question for our time is how to balance free speech and the sort of dangerous rhetoric that has infected our public square. Free-speech arguments are compelling and should prevail — until someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But what about when the commander in chief uses a social-media bullhorn to encourage the overthrow of a disappointing election? The first could lead to a deadly stampede, the other to destruction of our democracy. Are they not equally condemnable?

These are perplexing questions that merit careful consideration. I’ve previously argued that it’s best to know what people are thinking by allowing them to vent publicly than to wonder what burbles and festers beneath the foundations of our weakened institutions.

But, as we learn more from courageous people such as Navaroli, certitude becomes murkier and social media’s quandary becomes our existential threat. Navaroli says she fears that “we have seen our last peaceful transition of power.” Let’s hope she’s wrong.