On January 8, Twitter proceeded to “permanently suspend” – read cancel – Donald Trump’s account; According to the company’s statement, “following a review of the account’s recent tweets and the surrounding context, we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement to violence.”
The canceled account was followed by more than 88.7 million people, well more than twice the official account of Trump as President of the United States, which has more than 33.3 million followers. As is known, Trump’s personal account, now canceled, pre-dated his arrival at the White House, but the President made “institutional” use of it with much more profusion than the official account itself.
The repeated use of the aforementioned private account by Trump and the assistant to the President, Daniel Scavino, to announce, explain and defend their political measures, to promote the Government’s legislative agenda, to announce official decisions, publicize state visits, comment on relations international organizations, communicating appointments and removals from public office … ended up giving him that public profile, with its advantages and disadvantages.
Among the former, it should be noted that, as it was considered an institutional use account of a world political leader, Trump’s account deviated from the general blocking rules applied by Twitter and approved by this network, just three years ago, in January of 2018, in order, he declared, to promote “public conversation” on political issues, even if his statements are “controversial.”
Where did I say …
This announcement was made public after a tweet by Donald Trump about the use of nuclear weapons generated numerous criticisms of Twitter for, it was said, sheltering threats. The company responded:
«Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global and public conversation. Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their great impact on our society… Blocking a world leader on Twitter or deleting their controversial tweets would hide important information that people should be able to see and discuss. That leader would not be silenced, but it would certainly hamper the necessary discussion of his words and actions.
On October 15, 2019, Twitter published on its blog an entry on “World Leaders on Twitter: Principles and Approach” where it notes, among other things:
«Our mission is to provide a forum that allows people to be informed and directly involved with their leaders … Direct interactions with other public figures, comments on day-to-day political issues, or reactions on foreign policy related to economic or military, generally do not violate the Twitter Rules. However, if a world leader’s Tweet violates the Twitter Rules, but there is a clear public interest value to keeping the Tweet on the service, we may display it behind a notice that provides context about the violation in question and allows them to people who want to see the content click on it ».
Ultimately, Twitter establishes a “preferential” treatment, with respect to the general rules, for “world leaders”, which, it is assumed, has benefited Trump’s private-institutional account, which, otherwise, could have been “Sanctioned” previously, something demanded by his political opponents on many occasions.
By the way, the first time that Twitter “tagged” a Trump tweet was in late May 2020, when he made the following comment:
“… These BULLIES are dishonoring George Floyd’s memory, and I won’t let that happen. I just spoke with Governor Tim Walz and have told him that the Army is at his complete disposal. Any difficulty and we will take over but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”.
Twitter added the following message:
This tweet violated Twitter’s rules on glorification of violence. However, Twitter has concluded that it may be in the public interest that the tweet remains accessible.
Preferential treatment for Trump account
In contrast to this preferential treatment for Trump’s account, its conversion into a “public forum” has prevented its owner from using a social network tool as powerful as blocking other users who intend to interact or, at least , “Listen” to the account holder, which you could do without problem if it were a strictly private account; This was resolved in the judicial conflict raised once President Trump, after receiving several critical comments, blocked the access of seven citizens to his account @realDonaldTrump.
In the first instance, the Court of the Southern District of New York considered the blockade contrary to the First Amendment: although we are dealing with a private social network, the account is under the control of the federal government; secondly, it is necessary to differentiate between the list of tweets issued, which would form part of the government speech and could not be subjected to the strict scrutiny typical of a limitation to freedom of expression, and the interactive space for responses and retweets linked to each message from the account @realDonaldTrump, which would fall into that category, specifically in that of a public forum enabled by the public power, which, as long as it remains open, will be subject to the same rules as the traditional public forum: access to the Even if that implies discrimination based on the content of the message, something contrary to the First Amendment, something that would not have happened if instead of blocking those users they had simply been “silenced”.
This judgment was ratified by a Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and this very interesting case has been commented exhaustively and accurately by Professor Víctor Vázquez, to whose work I refer.
For its part, Twitter’s “relationship” with Trump has undoubtedly also brought him obvious advantages and, we could say, some “problems.” Among the first, the extraordinary global impact that an initially private account of the President of the United States supposes reaches almost 89 million followers (if we add those of the official account we would be talking about more than 122 million followers) and the enormous figures of movement and social interaction that Trump’s tweets have meant; also the boost that Trump’s electoral campaign for the Republican primaries and for the 2016 presidential elections brought to Twitter (Trump published 7,794 tweets) and other social networks; thirdly, the relevance and, therefore, prestige that Twitter has been given since the Trump administration, almost a sort of “Official Gazette”: in 2017, the Department of Justice even said that Trump’s tweets were “Official statements of the President of the United States.”
Trump moves to another network
Faced with this, Trump has brought “problems”, but also additional publicity and greater relevance to Twitter, in the form of “conflicts” on the occasion of not a few Trump tweets and subsequent tagging, temporary suspension and cancellation of the account. We will see the economic consequences, in the form of losses, that the expulsion of Trump generates for Twitter and the eventual boost that it may entail for Twitter’s now much more minority competitors, such as Parler.
What seems clear, and worrying, is that we are facing a game between, as Ferrajoli would say based on the Aristotelian idea of animality of power that is not subject to the law, “wild powers”: on the one hand, we have attended, during the Trump presidency, to an evident conflict between his personal, family and business interests and the interests of his country, it does not seem an exaggeration to affirm that the second was, on many occasions, subordinate to the first: the refusal to provide information on his statements tax laws and on the results of the investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections or the culmination of the presidential pardons are mere examples; To this must be added the contempt for the rights of minorities and the most vulnerable groups, such as foreigners in an irregular situation and, especially, their children, whose separation they promoted viciously for months or, at the institutional level, no longer the absence of any type of loyalty but rather the recalcitrant obstruction of the transfer of powers and the repeated attempts to delegitimize an electoral process that has been questioned without providing any basis.
If you do not like my values, I have others
But if the “Trump presidency” has been savage, no less savage are the practices of companies like Twitter or Facebook, which modulate the “rules of the game” for convenience, so that they more closely resemble the principles of Groucho Marx reformulated as “these they are my principles, but if I don’t like them, I have others ”than the rules theorized by Alexy, and they have accumulated so much power that they have turned cyberspace, as Ignacio Villaverde explains, into an area of impunity based on the idea that they are fundamental instruments for the exercise of our freedom of expression and that any rule that interferes with their business activity is, in reality, an infringement of our fundamental right.
President Trump has continued to have at his disposal the institutional account @POTUS on Twitter and an undeniable possibility of convening press conferences, with or without questions, recording and broadcasting videos through the various White House channels … and, what is not minor, I think that according to your country’s own regulations it is more than debatable that the application of Twitter’s rules has harmed your right to freedom of expression and that the First Amendment continues to be interpreted as a containment dam against attacks against freedom of expression from the public powers: the State should not take sides by repressing expressions, no matter how hateful, unless there is a direct and immediate incitement to violence.
Thus, and even assuming that Trump’s tweets did not pose the danger that Twitter seems to attribute to them, the “sanction” is framed in the clauses of a private contract, not in the rule approved by a public authority, and this seems exclude the application of the First Amendment. It also seems to me that the company was able to adopt a less drastic ‘sanction’, such as a temporary suspension of a certain duration.
It is possible, in short, that with its decision Twitter has offered us some protection against the savage powers of Trump but the challenge would be how we protect ourselves in a more democratic and institutional way both from an imperial and uncontrolled presidency and from those who obtain enormous economic benefits of a cyberspace that is governed not unlike the Wild West.
A version of this article was originally published on the blog “The right and the wrong” by the author himself.
Article published in ‘The conversation‘.