Well, here we are.
Although it feels like it’s been years, it was only a few short days ago that the president of the United States used Twitter to post a video that showed him tackling “CNN” to the ground.
At best, it was a childish meme meant to delight his base. At worst, it was a call to harm journalists.
Either way, it was the president using Twitter like an immature anonymous troll.
It was the CNN tweet that dominated the news cycle for most of the week. Not health care. Not tax reform. Not infrastructure or North Korea or cybersecurity. It was Donald Trump using his favorite platform to target a new perceived enemy that has nothing to do with his political agenda.
But that’s almost besides the point.
The result of Trump’s tweet wasn’t just a new wave of populist anger directed at the media. It also kicked off a cascade of abuse and harassment on Twitter towards journalists, especially CNN journalists, and anyone loosely associated with them. True story: CNN anchor Brian Stelter retweeted a photo I posted of the Fourth of July fireworks over New York City and I received countless abusive and spammy messages. Apparently, even fireworks are “fake news” if they’re shared by a journalist.
It was even scarier in the real-world, with Trump supporters reportedly making a flood of harassing phone calls to a CNN reporter’s wife and parents.
All of that because our president couldn’t control what he types into his iPhone.
Twitter’s long history of abuse on its platform and its failure to adequately tamp it down isn’t a new story. What is new is that after the unexpected outcome of last year’s election, we now have a president who repeatedly violates Twitter’s harassment policy, yet is allowed to continue tweeting away. Others have been kicked off Twitter for far less, but Twitter’s stance is that there are important political and newsworthy reasons for keeping the Trump account active.
The Milo standard
Fair enough. But that stance also ignores the viral effects of an abusive tweet from the president and how his actions on Twitter have created more abuse on the platform. It reminds me a lot of the argument Twitter used to remove tech-blogger-turned-right-wing-pundit Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter last year, saying his attacks on SNL cast member Leslie Jones led to “an uptick in the number of accounts” that violated its abuse and harassment policies. As a result, Yiannopoulos was permanently banned, along with some of his troll followers.
But that was just one isolated incident from a relative nobody. What we’ve seen on two shocking occassions in recent weeks was the president using Twitter’s platform to incite harassment on an entirely new level, one that not only ripples throughout Twitter, but also bleeds into the mainstream media and the real world. Because he’s the president, every statement Trump posts on Twitter is news, no matter how outrageous or “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL” it is. And those tweets have much more power to incite abuse and harassment than some anonymous troll.
The question then becomes what Twitter’s responsibility is when the president tweets something stupid. It’s clear that Twitter won’t suspend or mute Trump’s account, so it has to stick to its current method of hoping people report the abuse on its network and reaching out to others with warnings to remove offensive posts. That method clearly doesn’t go far enough. (Twitter declined to comment about anything related to this. A spokesperson just pointed me to its harassment policy and some blog posts about how it has improved reporting tools.)
It sounds hopeless. One answer would be for Twitter to speed up its efforts to tackle its abuse problem. The other, simpler answer, would be for the president of the United States to stop using Twitter as a platform for inciting such behavior.