Shortly before sending out a series of racist tweets last weekend — comments that should, by Twitter’s own rules, have gotten a regular user exiled from the platform — President Trump hosted a social media summit at the White House. It was an event that found him once again repeating his frequent, and false, claim that conservatives are silenced on social media.
Although it was an idea for which he could provide only anecdotal evidence, most of it seemingly drawn from watching his own Twitter follower count rise and fall like a stock ticker, it was a familiar premise for the summit’s guests, an assemblage of Trump’s most fervent and influential online supporters.
But, for all his complaints, Trump clearly knows better — not least because no one is silencing him. Indeed, he has proved himself a master at manipulating the company behind his favorite platform, if only by insisting that he has been victimized by it. Simply put, Trump’s White House social media summit enabled and encouraged the president’s bad behavior on the platform. The event was engineered to maintain both his influence across social media and his power over platform companies. Twitter has become a crucial factor in issues of global importance, but, as the last week shows, it has effectively ceded responsibility for governing its own platform to its most prolific and controversial user.
That’s rarely been clearer than it was after Trump launched a series of racist and political attacks on Twitter against the “Squad,” four freshmen Democratic lawmakers: Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.). Seemingly testing the limits of Twitter’s new policy, Trump smeared these congresswomen as anti-American and anti-Semitic and accused them of being communists.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump tweeted, before indicating that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would help work out “free travel arrangements” for the progressive representatives she had publicly sparred with.
It was a familiar racist trope, one that resonates with similarly bigoted responses lodged against black civil rights leaders who were seeking equal rights as American citizens. In theory, Twitter had set up a rule that would have positioned them to respond to such offenses, however weakly. On June 27 — well before either Trump’s summit or his most recent racist tweets — the company announced a series of new rules related to “public interest on Twitter.” Those rules affected only a specific set of users: They must represent a government, be running for public office, or be under consideration for a government position; they must have more than 100,000 followers; and they must be verified.
Rather than take down offending tweets from those who fit into these parameters, Twitter said it would place a content warning over tweets that violate its other rules, thereby allowing the public to hold that user accountable. The one exception is the category of tweets containing “direct threats of violence or calls to commit violence against an individual, that are unlikely to be considered in the public interest.”
But even as the House of Representatives formally condemned Trump’s comments, Twitter declined to attach the content warning to his tweets — or to any others, as far as we can tell. Meanwhile, Twitter’s new policies on hateful conduct are underutilized as death threats continue to be delivered daily via Twitter to Omar and other members of the “Squad.”
It seems unavoidably obvious that the company’s inaction is directly related to the president’s summit. At that event, Trump had assembled his own squad, preemptively rebuffing attempts to moderate his own hateful conduct — and that of the people who amplify him — with allegations of conservative bias and censorship. In effect, Trump has become the influencer in chief, setting his own terms of service and wielding the power of his office to protect those who serve his political agenda.
Thanks in part to the loud voices of the summit’s attendees, corporate social media platforms continue to act as a megaphone for Trump, allowing him to reach different audiences. By bringing together this alternative media network for an afternoon in the White House, Trump was reconstituting the coalition that brought him so much attention before the 2016 election. Teasing the summit in a tweet, he asked rhetorically, “Would I have become President without Social Media? Yes (probably)!” While he repeated this idea in jest during the summit, one thing was clear: He needs social media to remain in its current form to maintain direct access to his base.
By merely holding his summit — and grumbling from the bully pulpit of the White House itself — Trump was taking steps to keep that channel open. He had, in effect, boxed Twitter in by declaring himself oppressed. His subsequent racist tweets were like a proof of concept. Absurd as his complaints at the summit were, if Twitter had followed its own guidelines, they would have proved him right — and all those influencers in the room would have sounded the bias alarm. And if Twitter failed to enforce those rules, they were handing him the keys to the kingdom. This, of course, is exactly what happened.
Consequently, Trump has been left in de facto control of a platform that is increasingly influential over our political, electoral and social lives. In 2016, especially, social media became the backbone of political campaigns, at a scale not previously seen in other elections. That scale has transformed social media into an important political battleground. Trump knows this, but it is not clear that Twitter does. If we are to regain trust in technology, the policies must be enforced on those most powerful.
No longer an emerging technology imbued with the possibility of fostering social change by giving voice to small groups, social media has become a tool of the powerful to dominate, harass and coerce vulnerable groups. If we do not acknowledge this shift, the freest speech will benefit only those who are already powerful.