Basic human decency, a quality manifestly lacking in Trump, argues in favor of granting Klausutis’s request. Yet, while my heart aches for him and his family, I think that, on balance, deleting the tweets would be a mistake.
Twitter is both a private company and a powerful public platform. Once it assumes the role of deciding what speech by public officials is to be allowed and what is to be taken down, it has ventured onto the slipperiest of slopes. I’m not sure I want Dorsey or his team deciding what the public should and shouldn’t see from the elected president of the United States. Even this one.
Yes, under Twitter’s ordinary terms of service, the platform would not only remove the tweets but also perhaps even Trump himself; some people have advocated for just that. But the president, like any world leader — except more so, with his 80 million followers — is no ordinary tweeter.
As Twitter itself has explained, “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
The argument over what to do about Trump on Twitter is a subset of the larger debate about how to treat his outbursts and falsehoods, in particular whether the media becomes complicit simply by presenting them to a wider public. Thus, stretching back to the 2016 campaign, there has been vigorous debate over whether and how to cover Trump’s misinformation- and venom-filled campaign rallies.
In March, my colleague Margaret Sullivan called on the media to halt live broadcasts of Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings. “The news media, at this dangerous and unprecedented moment in world history, must put the highest priority on getting truthful information to the public,” she wrote. “Taking Trump’s press conferences as a live feed works against that core purpose.”
Perhaps, but I would argue that shining sunlight on Trump’s idiocy is the best disinfectant. Let the public witness him in his full glory and make its own judgment about whether he deserves a second term. Combine that with real-time chyrons and commentary calling out his falsehoods.
That is what Twitter usefully and appropriately did Tuesday when it appended a fact check to another set of Trump tweets about the supposed dangers of voting by mail. Twitter should do the same with Trump’s tweets about Scarborough (who is a Post Opinions contributor) and Klausutis; Trump’s conspiracy theorizing has been resoundingly debunked, and fact-checking Trump on this is even more justified, given the emotional distress his tweets have caused. A Twitter spokeswoman’s explanation for the vote-by-mail intervention — that Trump’s tweets “contain potentially misleading information” — is even more true in this case.
As a public official, Trump in effect enjoys both less and more leeway on Twitter. A federal appeals court was correct when it ruled last year that Trump did not, as he claimed, enjoy the ordinary Twitter user’s right to block followers at will. “While he is certainly not required to listen, once he opens up the interactive features of his account to the public at large he is not entitled to censor selected users because they express views with which he disagrees,” the appeals court observed.
In addition, it said, “the fact that any Twitter user can block another account does not mean that the President somehow becomes a private person when he does so. Because the President, as we have seen, acts in an official capacity when he tweets, we conclude that he acts in the same capacity when he blocks those who disagree with him.”
The conundrum of how to handle Trump’s Klausutis tweets reflects the flip side of that analysis. Just as the president, using Twitter as a mechanism of communicating his official acts, is constrained from blocking his critics, he enjoys more latitude in how he uses — or abuses — the platform because of his official role. Which underscores the real issue: The fundamental problem isn’t Twitter — it’s Trump. He shouldn’t be de-platformed, but he must be defeated.