To use his own ludicrous metaphor, President Trump could once shoot someone on Twitter’s Fifth Avenue and get away with it.
Not anymore. Twitter — Mr. Trump’s principal means of venting, picking petty fights, governing, campaigning and letting loose with torrents of all-caps — finally decided on Tuesday not to let him behave with impunity.
Mr. Trump still has the very widest berth of any Twitter user on the planet to huff and puff away on his tiresome sousaphone of bloviation. But, after doing absolutely nothing about the president’s rule-breaking posts by deeming his every utterance “newsworthy” (even covfefe), Twitter finally labeled two of his tweets about mail-in voting as “potentially misleading” and linked to articles that debunked his musings.
In other words, even if it soft-peddled the move with “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” Twitter pretty much called Mr. Trump a liar and brought the receipts.
No surprise that the president reacted with his usual rage — on Twitter, of course — accusing the platform on Tuesday of “stifling FREE SPEECH.” Ginning up his best Yertle the Turtle tone, Mr. Trump said that “as president,” he will “not allow it to happen.” He and his minions continued the assault on Wednesday, even targeting a specific Twitter executive, a dangerous act in a partisan time.
Oh, it happened. Someone should hand Mr. Trump a copy of the Constitution that he promised to preserve, protect and defend, and point to where it says that the government shall make no law abridging freedom of speech — it says nothing about a private company like Twitter keeping users’ speech in check.
In truth, Twitter is not stifling the president’s speech. (Smarter legal minds will walk us through the interesting free-speech issues this raises.) The company is taking a baby step here. It’s labeling and fact-checking and, despite all the sturm und drang, that usually tends to be clear-cut. In any case, it is Twitter’s platform, so it can do as it sees fit.
More important is what is going to come next from Twitter and, really, from all of the internet companies whose non-news businesses have invaded and conquered the media space that they are woefully ill equipped to manage.
That is the place that the Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey found himself in this week after my article about a letter to him from the widower of a woman whose death has become a tweet conspiracy-theory game for Mr. Trump. The president’s ire was aimed at hurting the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough; I won’t go into the very ugly details (you can read about it all here), but the widower, Timothy Klausutis, begged Mr. Dorsey to take down the president’s inaccurate and vile tweets about Mr. Scarborough and his wife.
While Twitter did not do that, the brouhaha was the impetus to accelerate already jelling plans within the company to deal with false information on the platform in a more significant way. Twitter executives are still sorting out how to handle tweets like those impugning Ms. Klausutis, if it is even possible at all.
Twitter felt on firmer ground around the mail-in voting tweets since the company had already publicly outlined how it would deal with elections. Thus, the new labels and links.
While I have called this solution naïve and impossible to scale, as well as subject to endless arguments about sources of information, this move is still big deal.
Sources at Twitter said to me that the change is one that many inside the company have long wanted to make — but that Mr. Dorsey has been slow to institute. That’s no surprise since doing so opens the door to more complex and thornier internal and external debates about how to manage the cacophony and complexity of the service.
Interestingly, many people I spoke to at Twitter were less worried about Mr. Trump’s threats — “We have already had round after round of this and it never goes anywhere,” one executive said to me — than about being able to come up with an information-integrity rubric that would not break apart immediately.
This means a rocky road ahead for Twitter. And, meanwhile, as Mr. Dorsey suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, Facebook is eluding the spotlight with its related problems.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Facebook executives have been ignoring internal research that showed how polarizing its algorithms had become. The article zeroed in on the efforts of the company’s global public policy head, Joel Kaplan, to beat back efforts to change the platform to promote social good and less partisanship, due to his worries that changes would disproportionately affect the right and depress engagement.
Mr. Kaplan was also reportedly behind the kneecapping of a project intended to better the political discourse called Common Ground — you could cut the irony here with a very big knife — that he apparently thought would anger conservatives.
Mr. Kaplan is quietly playing the fixer in the background, like the skilled Beltway political operative he is, on a much larger and more important platform than Twitter. Make no mistake, from sources I have spoken to, and as evidenced in The Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Kaplan has turned out to be the influential horse whisperer to his boss Mark Zuckerberg. He’s playing a big role in Facebook’s hands-off-Trump approach, making substantive decisions on platform policy and product-abuse issues.
As a former Facebooker noted to me in a text: “You can’t take the politician out of them. They will always be looking for the public angle.”
Indeed, Facebook said that it would not take down or label the same mail-in ballot nonsense that Mr. Trump cross-posted there.
“We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote,” a Facebook representative told The Washington Post.
A reminder amid all the noise around Twitter that there are still lots of digital Fifth Avenues for Mr. Trump to stroll down, locked and loaded for bear.