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MIT Technology Review

The exhausting playbook behind Trump’s battle with Twitter

The president’s response to Twitter’s fact-check of his tweets is the latest rehash of an old, unproven grievance.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Four years ago, a Breitbart writer famed for championing a harassment campaign targeting women in video games used his air time during a White House press briefing to blast Twitter. He was angry that he’d lost his verification badge, that little blue check mark, after the company said he had repeatedly violated the platform’s rules against inciting harassment. But he insisted that Twitter was actually punishing him for something else. 

“It’s becoming very clear,” Milo Yiannopoulos told Josh Earnest, then the press secretary for the Obama administration, in March of 2016, “that Twitter and Facebook in particular are censoring and punishing conservative and libertarian points of view.” Later that year, Twitter banned him entirely following his role in a harassment campaign against the actress Leslie Jones after she starred in a remake of Ghostbusters that swapped the original male lead roles for female ones, infuriating  misogynists. In response, he claimed that Twitter was now a “a no-go zone for conservatives.”

Other conservative and far-right figures have regularly lodged similar complaints in the years since, depicting Twitter’s enforcement of its policies against abuse and misinformation as a crusade laced with anti-conservative bias; the charges have then filtered up into conservative and mainstream press coverage. But the issue came to a head this week, after Twitter appended fact-checks to two of President Trump’s tweets, noting that they contained misleading claims about mail-in voting.

Trump attacked the move as censorship and promised a response. He’s just signed an executive order that could penalize major social-media companies for perceived censorship of conservative views. 

This moment feels like an inevitable escalation of a conflict that has been playing out across the major social-media companies, but particularly Twitter, for years—one that Yiannopoulos’s White House stunt foreshadowed. As platforms reckon with their role in amplifying misinformation, abuse, and extreme views, the arguments about content moderation that once lived on the fringes of Twitter’s rules increasingly involve people at the very center of mainstream power. 

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,” Trump tweeted to his 80 million followers this week. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.” His comments were covered widely in the media, as are many of his more inflammatory or conspiratorial tweets. 

Hours before news of the coming executive order broke, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway went on Fox News and encouraged viewers to hound a Twitter employee, spelling out his account handle and blaming him for the decision to fact-check the president’s tweets. “Somebody in San Francisco go wake him up and tell him he’s about to get a lot more followers,” she said.

Trump himself tagged the employee in a tweet on Thursday, effectively directing supporters to fill his mentions with abusive messages. The Twitter employee is also reportedly receiving death threats

This cycle has been set off in the past when Twitter has rolled out new policies designed to protect targets of abuse, suspended far-right accounts for rule violations, or stepped up efforts to slow the spread of misinformation. It begins with waves of speculation arguing that Twitter isn’t actually, say, enforcing its new abuse policies but instead implementing a secret anti-conservative agenda that must be stopped. Then there’s a rush to find and target someone responsible for implementing it. The blueprint dates back at least to Gamergate, the harassment campaign championed by Yiannopoulos targeting women in video-game development, whose supporters also claimed instead to be fighting a conspiracy against them ( “It’s actually about ethics in gaming journalism”).

The president uses his own account to continually test Twitter’s boundaries, and now he’s become the catalyst for a new cycle. In just the past week, he’s used his platform to amplify conspiracy theories suggesting that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a staffer and to spread misinformation about mail-in voting in an earlier series of tweets that were not subject to fact-check labels. He thanked a “Cowboys for Trump” account that tweeted a video where an unidentified man proclaimed that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” (After cheers from the audience, the speaker then clarifies that he meant the comment “politically.”)  The widower of the deceased staffer at the heart of the Scarborough conspiracy theory has begged Twitter to intervene.

The company had not taken any action against those tweets as of Thursday, although it has indicated that it is working to expand the labeling system that was used to flag some of Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting.

Until the fact-checking labels were introduced to two of Trump’s tweets on Tuesday, the platform had scrupulously avoided enforcing its rules against Trump’s account. Some explanations for the enforcement loopholes have cited the newsworthiness of otherwise rule-breaking content and Trump’s status as the head of a government.  

But Trump, despite the lack of evidence to support claims of systemic social-media bias against conservatives, has repeatedly promised to take up the issue on behalf of some of his more prominent supporters. In 2018, he accused Google of “rigging” news search results against conservative media, repeating a version of a claim that Trump supporters—including vloggers Diamond and Silk—had circulated in conservative media for a few days earlier. Diamond and Silk (whose real names are Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) claimed at a House Judiciary Committee hearing that April that they were being “censored” by Facebook because of their support for Trump

In 2019, Trump met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and reportedly took the opportunity to complain about losing Twitter followers. On the same day as that meeting, Trump tweeted that the platform was “very discriminatory.” He later tweeted that his administration was “closely” monitoring conservatives’ complaints of censorship. Later that year, Trump held a “social-media summit” with dozens of his most passionate online supporters to air their collective complaints that Google, Facebook, and Twitter were censoring them. 

None of these claims have to be true to be popular, which is something Trump and his online supporters know well. They just need to sound controversial enough to grab attention—or, better yet, redirect it from something else.