Kamala Harris urged Twitters CEO to ban Trump. Is she right, or would it amount to an assault on free speech?

Should Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the world, be banned from Twitter?

Kamala Harris thinks so. On Tuesday she sent a letter to Twitters CEO arguing that Trump has been violating the platforms user agreement. Harris pointed to recent tweets Trump had sent harassing the Ukraine whistleblower and the House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, as well as Trumps infamous tweet threatening civil war.

These, Harris said, constitute blatant threats that put people at risk and our democracy in danger. No user, regardless of their job, wealth, or stature should be exempt from abiding by Twitters user agreement, not even the President of the United States, Harris concluded.

Alex Thomas (@AlexThomasDC)

INBOX: Kamala Harris pens formal letter to Jack Dorsey asking him to kick Trump off Twitter, writing “these are blatant threats. We need a civil society, not a civil war. pic.twitter.com/zbC4dKUyEu

October 2, 2019

Twitter has acknowledged Harriss letter and said it will be responding.

This is far from the first time Trump has been accused of violating Twitters rules; nor is it the first time there has been debate about whether the president should be kicked off the platform. The argument has been raging ever since he got elected. In January, Twitter addressed controversy about Trumps tweeting without explicitly naming the president in a blogpost titled World Leaders on Twitter.

Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate, the blogpost explained. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.

Is banning Trump an assault on free speech?

Theres been a lot of outrage about the sanctity of the first amendment following Harriss call to ban Trump from Twitter. The Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard, for example, said: We cant just cancel or shut down or silence those who we disagree with or who hold different views or who say things even that we strongly disagree with. These freedoms and principles enshrined in our constitution are things we have to take very seriously.

In response, Harriss national press secretary, Ian Sams, accused Gabbard of echoing Fox News. This was the exact talking point @FoxNews personalities were promulgating on air all day yesterday, Sams tweeted on Wednesday.

This may not have been the most helpfully worded response by Sams, who sounds like he is arguing that free speech is a rightwing talking point. However, it is true that banning Trump from Twitter isnt really a free speech issue. As Twitter itself noted in its January blogpost, banning a world leader wouldnt silence them. If Trump was forced off Twitter he could just go on Fox News every day. He could hold more press conferences. Hell, he could even start his own social network.

Twitter
Twitter allows Trump to communicate in a direct and unfiltered way with the public, which may include spouting blatant untruths. Photograph: J David Ake/AP

Further, its not like Twitter allows unfettered free speech. As Harris points out in her letter to Dorsey, Infowars Alex Jones was permanently banned from the platform in 2018 for spreading disinformation and inciting violence.

Twitter has also used algorithms to aggressively crack down on Isis propaganda. However, earlier this year Vice reported that, according to one Twitter employee who works in machine learning, it hasnt taken the same aggressive approach to white supremacist content because on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material.

In short, there isnt a genuine free speech argument for not removing Trump from Twitter. The company is a private platform with community guidelines that it has a long history of enforcing according to its own discretion.

The most compelling reason to ban Trump is that which Harris brings up in her letter to Twitter: accountability. Banning Trump sends a message that Twitter is serious about its rules and that Trump, like everyone else must be held accountable for his actions. Not banning Trump, on the other hand, suggests that you can do whatever you like if youre powerful enough.

As journalist Elizabeth Spiers tweeted: I think we fail to hold people in power accountable when we suggest that they should be immune from a platforms TOS solely because theyre powerful.

Would banning Trump be counterproductive?

Twitter banning Trump would certainly send a message. The question is, which one? While some might see it as a win for accountability, the right would immediately interpret the move as censorship against conservatives and it would probably boost support for the president among his base. It might even help Trump win the election.

As well as turning Trump into the victim he so desperately wants to be, banning Trump would stop him from sharing his every fleeting thought. As Nate Silver noted, Twitter means the president can communicate in a direct and unfiltered way with the public. The spontaneous and unfiltered nature of Twitter may well end up working against the president. Theres certainly a scenario where he hangs himself with his own tweets, communicating things which will eventually help him get impeached.

Ultimately, I think, the most important point thing to take out of the Twitter/Trump debate is that neither Twitter nor Trump are the real problem. Its us, and our addiction to every tiny piece of Trump content.

Rather than banning Trump from Twitter, we should be focusing our attention on how we cover him. After all, while 100% of journalists may be on Twitter, only a small percentage of the world is. Trumps tweets become really dangerous when they are repeated and amplified by the mainstream news.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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