As protests and sporadic looting rocked Minneapolis Thursday night in the wake of George Floyd’s violent on-camera death at the hands of a police officer, President Donald Trump poured oil on the fire with a pair of tweets suggesting that he was about to dispatch troops to the Twin Cities and shoot looters.
Those remarks, in turn, prompted a response from Twitter, which said the tweets violated the service’s rules about glorifying violence but would not be removed because “Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”
The premise, basically, is that when the president of the United States violates the Twitter terms of service, that’s news and people should know about it. Nonetheless, the tweet now has special properties. It’s hidden from Trump’s timeline, and accessible only if you visit the tweet directly after clicking a “view” button. The reach of the tweet will also be limited as part of the process. The tweet also cannot be replied to, retweeted, or liked, and the flag ensures it won’t be algorithmically recommended on the platform.
This turn of events, naturally enough, led Trump to pivot back to one of his other major themes this week — threatening regulatory consequences for social media companies that anger him (he also reposted the tweet from the official White House account). Specifically, Trump called for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and reiterated his contention (which lawyers say is false) that he can somehow change the law through executive action.
It seems extremely unlikely that anything Trump says about this will have legal force. But the situation at Facebook puts this in some context. Facebook’s public policy division is led by Joel Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration and close friend of Brett Kavanaugh, who now routinely and often successfully intervenes in company disputes with an eye to making Facebook more GOP-friendly.
Twitter, YouTube, and other technology companies with significant influence in national media could follow that path if they chose to, and the president is making it clear that he would like them to.