Let’s face it—Donald Trump, the 65th president of the United States, is a classic Twitter troll. The Troll in Chief, if you will. He routinely uses the platform to lash out at his critics , he peddles fake news and conspiracy theories, and he has repeatedly threatened to start a nuclear war with North Korea.
But does all of this bad behavior mean Twitter should ban him from using the social network? No, and there are several compelling reasons why.
Calls to ban Trump have been around for some time, based on the idea that his routine harassment of other users represents a breach of Twitter’s code of conduct. But the pressure on Twitter to take action has ramped up recently, driven in part by tweets like the one he posted Tuesday, in which he belittled North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un and bragged about the size of his “nuclear button.”
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Leaving aside the fact that there is no “nuclear button” on the desk in the Oval Office, a number of commentators—including some journalists—argued that this behavior was beyond the pale, and that Twitter should take action not just for the sake of other Twitter users but for the safety of the U.S. as a whole. A scientist working with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (the ones who run the Doomsday Clock) called Trump’s tweets about North Korea “an existential threat to humanity.”
Writing in The Atlantic, meanwhile, Conor Friedersdorf said Trump’s tweet was “the most irresponsible tweet in history,” and called for the platform to block not just the president but all world leaders. Twitter “encourages impulsive hostility” and the results of such behavior are “potentially catastrophic,” he said.
Twitter has said that Trump’s tweet about North Korea didn’t breach its rules because it isn’t a specific call for violence against an individual. And in the past, when the topic of his tweets has come up, the company has said it makes an exception for statements that are considered newsworthy.
The company has a point. Whatever its flaws, Twitter is one of the primary news-delivery mechanisms of the 21st century, and the statements made by the president of the United States are by definition newsworthy. After all, according to both former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and the Department of Justice, Trump’s tweets are considered official statements from the president.
Apart from their news value, Trump’s tweets also provide something else, and that is a real-time look inside the mind and psyche of the president of the United States. It may be a dark place, and looking into it repeatedly may be soul-destroying and depressing for a number of reasons, but it is still arguably valuable to have those thoughts out in public where we can see them.
“We learn an enormous amount about his mindset from his tweets,” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter said in an interview earlier this year about Trump and Twitter. “It’s a raw, shocking use of media by a president, like he’s hosting a late-night talk show—picking fights, getting even with enemies.”
Banning Trump would also be an example of the kind of censorship Twitter and Facebook arguably already do too much of. It’s true that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private corporations like Twitter, who are allowed to regulate their content in any way they wish, but the idea that we should ban people from using dominant social platforms because we don’t like what they say is problematic.
Obviously, Donald Trump has innumerable other ways to get his message out to the American people, but that doesn’t change the fact that banning him from a platform like Twitter just because we don’t like the things he is saying would be a drastic overreaction.
This all leads to the third point, which is that blocking Trump from Twitter would be a big, fat present to the alt-right and conservative movements in the U.S., and to any of his supporters, because it would give them even more ammunition to argue that left-wing social media platforms are out to get conservative voices and remove their content whenever possible.
Are there risks in having the president tweet whatever pops into his mind? Of course. The idea that he could tweet his way into a nuclear war with North Korea seems like a bit of a stretch, but he can certainly complicate negotiations with all sorts of countries (and probably has), not to mention affecting the share price of public companies, targeting people for criticism unnecessarily and so on.
Another risk is that the media will pay too much attention to specific tweets by Trump, some of which could be designed to distract or shift attention away from other things, like the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russian government operatives. For a press corps that is desperate to generate traffic and revenue by any means possible, Trump’s Twitter pronouncements can be like manna from heaven.
These are all valid points to make when criticizing the president’s tweets and/or the media’s response to them. But that doesn’t mean the president should be removed from Twitter completely—and doing so could have far more negative consequences than it would positive ones.