September 25, 2021

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Future Technology

Tech Tent: Trump versus Twitter

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Reuters / Getty Images

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Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, has had much to deal with this week

For years, Twitter resisted calls to treat President Trump just like any other user. Then this week, everything changed.

On Tech Tent, we examine the conflict between the president and his favourite social media platform.

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It began on Wednesday. Twitter had been under fire for allowing tweets in which the president shared a far-fetched conspiracy theory about an alleged crime involving a TV presenter and former Republican congressman.

But instead of taking action on those tweets, it fact-checked two others – about postal voting under a new policy which seeks to deter content which might suppress voting.

Social media expert Chris Stokel-Walker tells Tech Tent that if Twitter thought limiting action to the area of elections was a cautious first step, it was wrong.

“As soon as you start engaging in any sort of moderation or comment on politics, you run the risk of potentially alienating 50% of your audience – and given our very politically fractious times, that is more of a risk than ever,” he said.

Having taken that first step, and seeing President Trump immediately go nuclear and threatening to go so far as to shut the social media platform down, Twitter might have been tempted to go quiet for a bit.

Instead, it chose escalation.

In the early hours of Friday morning, in a tweet about the protests in Minneapolis over the death of a black man, Mr Trump warned: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.

Twitter’s moderation team swung into action – after consulting CEO Jack Dorsey – and obscured the tweet with a message saying that rules on glorifying violence had been broken.

Users could still see the tweet by clicking through that message, but sharing it was made harder.

A few hours later, as the president woke up, the official White House account simply repeated the offending tweet. We watched with bated breath to see what would happen and, sure enough, Twitter’s moderators slapped the same warning on the tweet.

It is difficult to see either side backing down now.

The White House is busy scouring Twitter to find examples of other world leaders who have glorified violence without any comeback. Others are finding all sorts of old Trump tweets that appear to have broken the rules by, for instance, spreading misinformation about treatments for coronavirus.

Jack Dorsey, who had appeared very reluctant to apply anything but the most light-touch regulation, now finds himself faced with the unappealing prospect of cracking down on world leaders far and wide.

Meanwhile, there is not exactly much solidarity being shown by Facebook.

In general, it has been a more tightly-moderated platform than Twitter, but Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear he has no intention of following Jack Dorsey’s lead when it comes to fact checking politicians. Donald Trump’s Facebook page has simply replicated the posts which fell foul of Twitter – with no sign of fact-checking or finger-wagging.

“This is the kind of thing that Donald Trump revels in,” says Chris Stokel-Walker, “an ex-reality TV star who likes to stir the pot. He’s now managed to set Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey against each other.”

For all the rage about freedom of speech from the president – and remember Twitter as a private company can do what it likes in that area – he seems unlikely to kill what has become his main platform for getting his message out.

Like the fighting couple in some dodgy romcom, Trump and Twitter need each other – though one suspects Jack Dorsey might be tempted to throw the President out and change the locks.

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