Twitter And Trump Are Putting Private Citizens’ Lives At Risk
How will Twitter deal with one of the country’s most prominent cyber bullies leading the free world?
Last week, when Barack Obama granted clemency to Chelsea Manning, it was heralded as an important (if far from complete) victory for human rights. Manning, a former intelligence analyst who was imprisoned for leaking information on the military, was subjected to grave violations behind bars, including inhumanely long stretches in solitary confinement and the withholding of vital services to support her transition as a transgender woman.
What a difference a week makes.
Yesterday, our new president, Donald Trump, lambasted Manning, opening her up to further abuse at a time when she will already be heavily targeted and require substantial protection to ensure her safety. And he used, of course, Twitter to do his dirty work.
Setting aside the flagrant hypocrisy of the tweet — Trump has said far worse about Obama — it was just the latest time our new president has used his social media platform to call out a private citizen and expose them to abuse not only online, but potentially offline as well.
The President of the United States using Twitter as a tool for harassment is entirely unprecedented, and has left troubling questions in its wake. Does the First Amendment protect Trump’s actions — or those whose lives may be put on the line because they’ve exercised their own rights to free speech? What role can, and should, Twitter play in limiting the damage Trump can do with 140 characters or less? And, more broadly, how can we protect marginalized private citizens from abuse when our nation’s commander in chief — and one of the most powerful tech companies in the world — are working together to ensure they may never feel safe?
It’s not new, of course, for the marginalized to face threats. But many harassers who had previously been all talk have become significantly bolder since this election season. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a spate of alleged hate crimes and other violent harassment inspired by Trump’s victory on Election Day, with at least 867 such incidents happening in just the first 10 days after the election.
Social media in particular has played a powerful role in enabling heightened abuse. Indeed, people may be less willing to make good on a threat they’ve leveled against a person they’ve seen and interacted with before, human to human, versus someone who exists in their minds solely as an abstract enemy, learned about only via social media. Social psychologists find that deindividuation, the sense that people can’t personally identify you, happens not only in crowds and other anonymous situations, but also online. That sense of not being accountable to one’s own identity facilitates everything on the online harassment and violence continuum, from ordinary rudeness, to trolling, to actual abuse.
Even more frightening, however, is the fact that abuse that originates online can so quickly spread offline, such that the marginalized may have their physical safety put at risk.
Even more frightening is the fact that abuse that originates online can so quickly spread offline.
Those of us who use social media regularly, and know how deeply disturbed some of its users are, understand that online harassment can easily lead to offline consequences. And under Trump — who has been an enthusiastic Twitter user for years, particularly once he took an interest in politics and began fueling racist conspiracy theories questioning President Obama’s citizenship—we’ve seen this dynamic play out frequently.
Some of our president’s targets have been celebrities like Bette Midler, Rosie O’Donnell, and Megyn Kelly — the latter of whom faced significant harassment on and off the platform as a result of Trump’s Twitter bullying, including having strangers show up at the building where she lives. But Trump has also been frighteningly willing to attack ordinary private citizens, with dire consequences. And these victims, unlike someone like Megyn Kelly, can’t afford to hire private security.
Take the case of the then-18-year-old student Trump attacked on Twitter after she questioned whether he’d be a “friend of women” at one of his events in the fall of 2015. As a result of those tweets, she received an onslaught of rape and death threats that continues over a year later. Or the example of Chuck Jones, the union leader who — after Trump tweeted that he had, among other things, “done a terrible job representing workers” — received calls threatening his life.
As more people speak out against the abuse, harassment, and violence that has been fostered by online hate speech, many trolls committing these digital assaults, alongside their ideologically aligned supporters, have retreated to a faulty defense. Efforts by “social justice warriors” to get social media platforms to ban or otherwise protect users from online hate speech and harassment, they say, amounts to an attack on their free speech rights (as though driving women, people of color, LGBT people, Muslims, and Jewish people off of these platforms by threatening our health and safety isn’t a serious attack on ours).
The core of this argument is a crass re-appropriation of the First Amendment. Nothing in our Constitution supports the idea that private individuals, interacting on privately-owned platforms like Twitter, should essentially be forced to tolerate abuse as the cost of free expression more generally. The First Amendment is meant to prevent agents of the government from limiting Americans’ rights to free speech. Preserving ordinary citizens’ freedom to speak and act in ways that inspire movement toward a more perfect union is the primary reason our Constitution safeguards freedom of speech — not the “freedom” for any jerk with an internet connection to use a privately-run platform to harass people for things like their weight, or tell a writer they don’t like that they want to violate her child.
Nothing in our Constitution supports the idea that private individuals should essentially be forced to tolerate abuse as the cost of free expression more generally.
Yet, perhaps because the people responsible for running platforms like Twitter are overwhelmingly white, cis men — a demographic that tends to experience the least severe forms of online harassment (name-calling and embarrassment, compared with sexual harassment and threats of sexual assault) — very little has been done to fix this problem. Despite a few late-coming efforts to help users deal with abuse, highly abusive users (including some who had been previously banned for their behavior) have largely been allowed to keep tweeting with impunity.
It has taken years to get Twitter to respond with any seriousness to the abuse originating from their platform, and that response has been pretty inconsistent overall. On one hand, they have introduced new tools to make it easier to filter out offensive content and avoid offensive users. On the other hand, they’ve been inconsistent in who they sanction or ban for violating their rules — a more important step than simply enabling victims to hide offensive content, particularly if abusive users are engaging in dangerous behavior like doxxing that can harm victims whether they see it coming or not — and in maintaining those bans.
That inconsistency is ever more troubling now that they’re facing a much bigger challenge, which will test their stated belief in making their platform safe for all users, to say nothing of their patriotism and their moral compass as an organization: How will they deal with one of the country’s most prominent cyber bullies leading the free world?
How will Twitter deal with one of the country’s most prominent cyber bullies leading the free world?
This kind of behavior from an American president is unheard of, both for the presidency and for Twitter. It’s hard to overstate how terrifying it is, particularly for activists of any kind, to see the most powerful person in our government using Twitter to single out private citizens for abuse, for engaging in exactly the kind of speech the First Amendment exists to protect. If ever something qualified as having a chilling effect on free speech, it’s the specter of being personally targeted by a president, risking the simultaneous possibility of governmental retaliation as well as random violence at the hands of his obsessive supporters.
“We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”
The explanation of their rules specifically includes a prohibition on harassment, including inciting other users to harass people. While they and/or Trump himself could coyly attempt to say that he technically has yet to directly ask his Twitter followers to target his past victims, the fact remains that there is a clear pattern of that happening virtually every time he singles people out for retaliatory criticism. His mentioning a specific person is effectively like him painting a target on them, which his followers then seize upon. (The fact also remains that he has explicitly and implicitly condoned and encouraged violence at his in-person events, including saying that he’d pay the legal fees of supporters who attacked protesters at his rallies, where violence regularly occurred throughout the campaign season.)
If someone ends up getting hurt or killed after being singled out by him — a frighteningly real possibility, given how he has emboldened fringe elements in our society — Twitter could be held accountable for willfully ignoring such an obvious, well-established pattern. It’s clear that on some level, Twitter does understand that online speech can translate into material, real-world harm. In banning users like Milo Yiannopoulos for his hateful campaign against actor Leslie Jones, for example, they’ve shown that they understand that inciting targeted harassment is damaging, and that people who engage in such behavior shouldn’t be allowed to use their platform.
Yet Yiannopoulos has a mere fraction of Trump’s social reach and influence. As the Washington Post recently noted:
“With one tweet, Trump can change headlines on cable news, move financial markets or cause world leaders to worry. With one tweet last week, Trump inflamed a conflict with China. With another tweet on Tuesday, Trump caused Boeing stock to plummet. With a third on Wednesday night, Trump prompted a series of threatening calls to the home of a union leader who had called him a liar.”
Multiple individuals who have been named by Trump on his Twitter account have experienced harassment akin to what Yiannopoulos aimed at Leslie Jones — yet unlike her, several of them aren’t celebrities with the influence or resources to protect themselves as fully as she can.
Even if Twitter’s leaders don’t recognize the disconnect there, many Twitter users do.
Recognizing the risk Trump poses to the public through his impulsive use of his Twitter account, there is also a nascent campaign led by progressive bloggers @ameriblog to “Make Twitter Great Again” by pressuring Twitter to ban him. For Twitter, this is an understandably difficult situation — who wants to go up against the President of the United States, particularly one as thin-skinned and vengeful as Trump?
Recognizing the risk Trump poses to the public through his impulsive use of his Twitter account, there is now a nascent campaign to “Make Twitter Great Again” by pressuring Twitter to ban him. For Twitter, this is an understandably difficult situation — who wants to go up against the President of the United States, particularly one as thin-skinned and vengeful as Trump?
Who wants to go up against the President of the United States, particularly one as thin-skinned and vengeful as Trump?
Yet as an influential company providing a tool that has fueled some of our time’s most significant David vs. Goliath social movements, it behooves them to seriously consider both the risks to individual users as well as to public discourse more generally if they allow him to continue targeting people using his account.
While they hopefully have that internal conversation, the rest of us need to have an important public conversation about how to manage this and other threats Trump poses to our civil liberties. For instance, if Twitter continues to ignore the Trump problem, it might be time to boycott the platform in various ways — like by refusing to purchase sponsored content until they take action, or refusing to use the platform at all. (Indeed, if reports of Twitter’s declining engagement and former users like feminist writer Lindy West are any indication, many users are already voting with our digital influence, cutting down on the amount of time we spend using it because it’s just not worth having to deal with the negativity.)
At a minimum, we need to have a robust public conversation about what it means for our society if the president is allowed to single people out for abuse online, with impunity. Though there are plenty of other reasons to fear the authoritarian implications of his presidency — and his first week in office has given us plenty to fear — the possibility of his using his horde of Twitter followers as a de facto army who can carry out acts of stochastic terrorism on his behalf shouldn’t be dismissed, either.