Over the weekend, using his favorite medium, Donald Trump quoted a guest on his favorite TV show, saying that should he be impeached, “it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
Just a day earlier, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, issued a very similar, threatening statement.
To much criticism, Twitter’s policy has for years been to allow politicians to say what they want on the platform, under the guise of “newsworthiness.” In June, it formalized the rule, albeit with an important tweak: it would hide and label politicians’ tweets that violate these policies. However subtle, Twitter was taking a stance: it would not serve as a completely undiscerning megaphone for politicians.
But is that enough? As others have pointed out, Trump frequently makes false statements on social media, and has made other, similar threats. His presidency has underscored how we’re in an era where, through social media, politicians have access to the public without any sort of filter in the form of journalistic commentary, fact-checking, context, or vetting by staff (the precursor being live rallies, which have also made a big comeback).
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which last week announced a policy echoing Twitter’s, are putting themselves in a position of deciding what’s newsworthy, and what serves the public interest. They’ve now been these gatekeepers for years, but as it turns out, are still figuring what that role should look like. And that discussion has no easy answers, while the consequences are concerning.
Twitter went one way, deciding it would introduce some censorship of politicians’ speech, if they broke the platform’s rules. If there is such a breach, Twitter now places a screen that you have to tap on to see a Tweet, with “additional context and clarity.” The company also said it would ensure that these tweets would not get algorithmically elevated, all in an effort to “to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these Tweets.” But that, some argue, doesn’t address the root of the problem that platforms like Twitter created, by allowing hate speech and misinformation to swirl around for years.
Imagine if willfully ignorant, apolitical techno-optimism, hostile to any regulation, hadn’t been the ground on which we constructed our current digital infrastructure