If you were to sum up the reason for Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign in one word, it would be Twitter.
With a love for the platform that earned him the title of ‘Twitter President’, Trump has used the platform to great effect, both in the run up to his presidency and during it. He’s connected with voters and supporters, argued against negative media portrayals and shared his 4am thoughts on everything from foreign policy to climate change.
His tweets have also become powerful influencers in the wider world. In 2017 Goldman Sachs noted that his reactions to North Korean missile testing mattered more to global stock markets than the tests themselves.
Trump himself has previously highlighted how important Twitter has been to his presidency. In 2017 he told Fox Business Network:
“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.
“When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it. The other way, I would never be [able to] get the word out.”
And get his word out, he did. Analysis by the New York Times from late 2019 found that Trumps rate of tweets grew by around 300% since he took office.
But now, Trump is attempting to destroy his maker after Twitter fact-checked a tweet of his about mail-in ballots. And while the executive order he has since signed is being branded as censorship, the biggest harm from his actions is likely to be felt by Trump himself.
Trump takes on Twitter with executive order: A spat becomes a war
While there have been tit-for-tat incidents between Trump and Twitter before, this latest incident has seen tensions between the president and the social media site escalate to an unprecedented level.
It began with Twitter adding fact-checking links to two of Trump’s tweets on Tuesday, when Trump claimed that mail-in voting would produce a “Rigged Election”. This was the first fact-checking alert of its kind on Twitter, linking users to a Moments page on the site that listed facts that counteredTrump’s claims.
Trump reacted angrily, accusing Twitter of preventing free speech and “interfering” with the 2020 presidential election.
Trump then began drafting an executive order that changes section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which currently makes social media sites largely immune to prosecution for content posted to their platforms.
His changes would see this immunity lifted if a social media site engages in “editing content”, and attempts to enforce political neutrality on social media sites through establishing a working group to explore the “potential enforcement of State statutes that prohibit online platforms from engaging in unfair and deceptive acts and practices”.
The move has been met with derision from many quarters, with Hannah Bloch-Wehba, a Drexel University law professor branding the move “totally asinine”, while Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said that it was “more bluster than action, but that does not mean it should not be taken seriously”.
“The president has made clear he disagrees with a recent decision to fact check one of his posts, and in response, he has begun to weaponise federal and state law enforcement and regulatory agencies to retaliate against an American company,” said Castro.
“There are legitimate questions about how to ensure content moderation is fair and reasonable, respond to the threat of disinformation, and strike the right balance with platform liability. However, this should be pursued through a thoughtful and open and democratic forum, such as Congress, not through an ill-conceived executive order provoked by a moment of pique.”
But while many disagree with the move, there is also the issue of how it is likely to be enforced, with some suggesting that social media sites may now delete posts or block users rather than fact-checking posts in order to fall foul of the new editing content rule.
Why Trump is hurting himself more than Twitter
For all the bluster, Trump is ignoring a sorry truth: he needs Twitter, but Twitter doesn’t need him. And this course of action is likely to see the President’s reach on the platform severely curtailed.
Twitter has already placed what it calls a “public interest notice” on a Tweet from Donald Trump about the Minneapolis protests over the death of George Floyd in which Trump said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Twitter flagged it as having “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence”, making it only visible to those who click on the notice, and restricting it from being liked, commented on or retweeting without additional comment.
Under the new executive order, Twitter may be compelled to simply delete such Tweets, or even ban Trump altogether. And with #BanTrumpFromTwitter trending, the social media site would certainly have considerable support to do so.
If it did, or even if it continues to restrict content from Trump that violates its rules, the use of the site would be unlikely to suffer, but Trump would be harmed.
Trump is currently ramping up his campaign for the 2020 election, and the Twitter President needs his direct voice to his voters if he is to win another term.
It is a central part of Trump’s campaign approach, and one of the most important ways he has differentiated himself from conventional politicians. Without this, he will be largely viewed through the lens of media outlets, many of which have been highly critical of his presidency. And with coronavirus currently putting a halt to Trump’s much-loved political rallies, he is more reliant on Twitter than ever to maintain direct communication with his supporter base.
But while there are other social media sites, Trump has little choice beyond Twitter. None of its main rivals offer the same style of rapid communication and reach. Facebook, for example, will not show users the post of someone they do not follow unless it is promoted or meets the needs of its very exacting algorithms, and Instagram not only has similar issues, but is also very image-led. TikTok, a Chinese-owned site, is of course out of the question.
Essentially, there is no other option than Twitter that provides the combination of brevity, frequency and reach that Trump has come to rely on for his communication with voters.
The impact leaving Twitter has can be best seen in the post-tweeting careers of once-famous antagonists that have been banned from the platform. Alt-right heavyweights Milo Yiannopoulous and Alex Jones have both received permanent bans, and their presence in the public eye has been severely impacted as a result.
Of course, the sitting president has far more opportunities for reach than a blogger and the presenter of Infowars, but if Trump wants his unedited message to be heard, there is currently no other service that will enable as many people to hear it than Twitter.
He may have come to hate the social media platform, but now more than ever he needs it.