After weeks of tweeting misinformation about mail-in voting, Twitter on Tuesday decided to slap a small disclaimer on some of President Trump’s posts on the subject. “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” reads a link to a string of reputable reports about proxy voting, which is practiced in both Democratic and Republican states, and has not been proven to lead to widespread fraud, contrary to what the president has claimed repeatedly.
Trump’s response was to threaten to cancel the First Amendment.
Trump, writing voluntarily on a corporation’s publishing platform, tweeted Tuesday night that the social media giant is “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and “completely stifling FREE SPEECH.” After what we can only imagine was a sleepless night spent on the phone with top-flight constitutional scholars, Trump came up with the pERfEcT defense of free speech: Threatening to use the federal government to regulate or shut down social media outlets if they don’t do what he wants.
“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,” the president wrote. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”
….Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
“Twitter has now shown that everything we have been saying about them (and their other compatriots) is correct,” Trump added Wednesday morning. “Big action to follow!”
Of course, Trump couldn’t care less about “FREE SPEECH.” Adding a fact-check option to some of Trump’s tweets is a form of exercising the right to free speech. (So would, for that matter, Twitter declining to help Trump get his message out to 80.3 million followers.) Trump moving to “regulate” Twitter’s ability to fact check him — or, worse, to “close them down” over it — would constitute a blatant infringement of the First Amendment that not even the most MAGA-friendly court in America could rationalize as constitutional.
Trump may well be making empty threats — but those threats alone will probably suffice. Simply floating the idea of impropriety will get his followers riled up and put pressure on social media platforms to cow to his demands, or risk being perceived as biased. It has worked before. Republicans feeling like Twitter is silencing conservative voices, as Trump wrote on Wednesday, is largely the result of his own previous complaints and threats against the platform. There’s no actual substance to the grievances. Like his entire presidency, it’s a self-perpetuating carousel of bullshit. Every time it swings back around, it seems a little more legitimate because people remember hearing about it on the first pass, or the second, or the third.
Trump is trying to pull off the same con with his Twitter campaign to get Florida law enforcement (or “Concast”) to open up a “Cold Case” against MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Since early this month, Trump has been tweeting incessantly about a debunked conspiracy theory that, when Scarborough was a member of the House of Representatives, he murdered one of his staffers, Lori Klausutis. In reality, Klausutis suffered from an undiagnosed heart condition, fell in the office, and hit her head on a desk.
Last week, Klausutis’ husband, Dr. Timothy J. Klausutis, wrote a letter asking Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to remove the posts. “The President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain,” Klausutis wrote, The New York Times reported. Many agreed with Klausutis, and the letter reignited calls for the social media giant to hold the president to the same standards as the rest of its user base.
Twitter would be well within its rights to do so. The platform’s terms of service prohibit targeted harassment and hateful conduct. Trump is clearly in violation of both, and if he is going to choose to post on Twitter, he is subjecting himself to the platform’s discretion over how to enforce its rules. But Twitter has refused to take action throughout his presidency, and refused to do so again in response to Klausutis.
“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” a Twitter representative told CNN. “We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”
The same day, the fact-check option appeared on Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting. It’s a welcome change, but also a far less drastic step than deleting his posts about Klausutis, which continued Wednesday morning. “Psycho Joe Scarborough is rattled, not only by his bad ratings but all of the things and facts that are coming out on the internet about opening a Cold Case,” the president wrote. “He knows what is happening!”
In other words, the carousel is still spinning.