A large number of people, many of them in the mainstream media, spent a large part of Sunday up in arms about a tweet from Donald Trump in which he bashed CNN as “fraud news” (he’s apparently trying to get away from the term “fake news,” probably because it has been debased by him and his followers). The tweet included a GIF from a wrestling event in which he took someone down, but their face is obscured by a CNN logo.
Obviously, this is far from the only time Trump has attacked CNN on Twitter, and it’s not even close to being the worst thing he has said about them in speeches or at rallies. So why did it cause so much fuss? Mostly because some saw it as encouraging violence against members of the media, which they said crossed the line of acceptable behavior — and some argued that it should be seen as a breach of Twitter’s terms of service, which forbids harassment or threats of violence.
There’s a lot going on here, of course, which makes it more complicated than just some dumb tweet. First of all, it’s from the president of the United States. And it’s yet another in a long line of attacks on the mainstream media and threats against the press, and even threats against the First Amendment. Trump has deliberately made the traditional media the enemy, and this apparently plays extremely well with his base, who see the press as left-wing liars.
Needless to say, this troubles many people in the media, including me. It’s a pernicious and dangerous attempt to destabilize the free press and to empower news outlets that are more friendly to Trump, such as Breitbart News, InfoWars and NewsMax.
That said, however, this is also just a dumb tweet that includes a joke video clip from a clearly staged wrestling match, with a poorly Photoshopped logo added to it — in other words, it seems to be an obvious parody. In any case, it is hardly a call to violence against the press. And since that is the case, if Twitter was to remove it, it would provide Trump’s base with even more ammo to argue that their guy is being treated unfairly by liberal media snowflakes.
On top of all that, I personally don’t want Twitter to be pushing the censorship line even further down the slippery slope it is already on. Should hate and outright violence be removed? Yes. But if we are going to take down every tweet or account that engages in parody or satire, that’s going to lead to some dark places. As Charlie Warzel points out, Twitter didn’t even take down Kathy Griffin’s severed-head parody tweet, and that was much closer to advocating actual violence.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci also makes a good point, which is that CNN is hardly a blameless actor in this whole scenario. The network has deliberately and crassly played to Trump’s supporters in a variety of ways, and arguably gave the candidate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free advertising during the campaign. As she put it, if you turn the election into a wrestling match, someone who comes from that background will turn it against you.
I realize that just because CNN has given Trump lots of coverage, that doesn’t justify him attacking them. That’s called blaming the victim. And I also know that as soon as a journalist is thrown to the floor by a Republican (as Ben Jacobs was not long ago by then Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte) or is otherwise harmed by a Trump supporter, someone will say that this GIF made them do it. I happen to think that’s unlikely, but I could be wrong.
In any case, I think Twitter was right not to remove the tweet, because that’s a slippery slope that I don’t think we want to go down. Feel free to argue the point with me in the comments below.