Feeling bitter over Twitter

Comment Science and Technology

These are troubling times for America. With a pivotal presidential election looming and the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, the country is in turmoil as politics takes control. Every day, videos of police brutality and racism are shared onto the social media sites that have become the main source of information for millions of people around the globe.

Social media is used to spread messages, share opinions and display our adorable pets. Sites such as Twitter have become a platform for politicians to dictate their agenda and express their concerns, and when it comes to frequent political tweeting few can rival President Donald Trump.

Trump loves Twitter. It’s no secret; he can produce over twelve tweets in a day, political or otherwise. On the 26th April, Twitter added a disclaimer to two of Trump’s tweets, inviting his followers to “get the facts about mail-in ballots”.

When clicked, they take you through to a page filled with articles contradicting Trump’s claims that mail-in ballots are more at risk from fraud, and that the ballots are sent out to anyone living in the state “no matter who they are or how they got there”. The attached articles from the disclaimer instead preach that mail-in ballots are completely safe and already widely used and that they are only sent to registered voters.

Trump loves Twitter. It’s no secret; he can produce over twelve tweets in a day political or otherwise.

Three days later, Trump’s tweet regarding the George Floyd protests which included the statement “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” was covered by Twitter for “inciting violence”. The tweet was not removed – you simply had to press a button to uncover it.

Trump was outraged; and in an ironic display began to tweet furiously about how Twitter was attacking him, accusing them of censorship and somehow relating it to China by crying unequal treatment. Indeed, many sympathisers have questioned why Twitter has introduced these measures now and have failed to cover some of the president’s previous tweets which also incite violence.

The president was quick to respond, signing an executive order two days after the initial tweets were posted, targeting tech companies and social media. Currently, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, sites like Twitter are protected from being held liable for much of the content posted by individual users, and Trump’s new order seeks to chip away at this protection.

Upset by what he considers a betrayal from his favourite social media platform, Trump retaliated fast in a blatant power display. He claims; “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”

Is this an issue of Free Speech? America’s first amendment protects the right of free speech including the right to receive information, be it ‘fake news’ or not. Twitter has not sought to hide Trump’s words, but rather to question his facts which many will take at face value.

Has Twitter not provided more access to important information? Trump fears that social media is moving to question every fact, but is that such a bad idea? Providing a link to contrasting news articles does not sound like an infringement on human rights to me. There may be a danger in the development of this ‘fact-checking’, but Twitter’s current actions appear to want to educate as opposed to censoring.

Trump fears that social media is moving to question every fact, but is that such a bad idea?

The fact-checking tool on Twitter is not new. Trialled as early as February, the original method involved tagging tweets with an orange box which marked them as “harmfully misleading”. The warning box reads “Twitter Community reports have identified this tweet as violating the Community Policy on Harmfully Misleading Information” which in itself is interesting, as Trump’s tweet was not labelled “misleading”, Twitter simply directed you towards an article which proved it was misleading.

Perhaps more significantly, the following warning was written: “this tweet’s visibility will be reduced”. This is censorship; this is withholding or limiting access to information regardless of its authenticity. This also appears to have dodged Trump, although perhaps this is as a result of his overblown reaction. While I condone the act of fact-checking, limiting access to these tweets can be a dangerous move toward the infringement upon Free Speech that all parties are so fearful of.

Trump’s retaliation has even been considered a greater threat to Free Speech, as a lawsuit has been filed against his new order. His crackdown has been considered a violation of the rights of social media companies, who would have to remove certain posts to protect themselves. The non-profit Center for Democracy has even gone so far as to say that Twitter was only exercising their first amendment rights. It seems to me the words ‘Free Speech’ is being thrown around arbitrarily, as no one has yet to remove or hide anyone else’s words or opinions.

While I condone the act of fact-checking, limiting access to these tweets can be a dangerous move toward the infringement upon Free Speech that all parties are so fearful of.

The third tweet was demarcated: “this tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence – however, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest in the Tweet to remain accessible”. Here, Trump is being treated just as anyone else would – I have reported tweets that have violated said rules and they have been removed entirely. This appears to be a political move from Twitter to allow the tweet to remain; it highlights the behaviour and words of a president that preaches not peace, but more extreme violence that he condemns when committed by riot participants.

This is not censorship in its traditional sense, for while it may be considered suppression, Twitter does not seek to prohibit any of Trump’s words. They have essentially provided a variation of a trigger warning; the tweet itself, and its sinister content, remains.

None can claim that Trump is anything less than a man of action. Within days of the censorship, he had retaliated, although his response appears to be rushed and has damaging repercussions. Ultimately, I think this can be reduced to a lovers’ tiff; Trump feels betrayed by Twitter, his favourite social media, and is throwing everything he can at them in a display of unnecessary power. He has highlighted to both America and the wider world that he is not afraid of taking steps to limit their access to information and Free Speech if it means proving a point. I believe social media fact-checking in its current form, with aims to educate and without censorship, could be the way forward.

Image Credit: Eloïse Fabre, The Oxford Student Creative Team

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