There is a lot going on right now, to say the least — a global pandemic, an economic recession, millions of people without jobs, riots over police murdering a black man in Minnesota. And yet, the president is in a tizzy over a label Twitter put on two of his tweets.
President Donald Trump, who has spent recent days online pushing a conspiracy theory about a former staffer of a television host he doesn’t like, has spun into a rage after Twitter for the first time added a fact-check label to two of his tweets that shared misleading information.
In the tweets in question, which Trump posted on Tuesday, he claimed without evidence that there is “no way” that mail-in ballots “will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” and particularly pinpointed California’s vote-by-mail plans. Twitter added a label to Trump’s tweets, encouraging users to “get the facts” about mail-in ballots and pointing them to more information. (Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary has the full breakdown on the fact-check drama.)
And then, all hell broke loose.
The president accused Twitter of interfering in the 2020 presidential election and of stifling free speech. He’s continued to rail against the company since and is now threatening to “strongly regulate” or close down social media companies. He signed an executive order on Thursday that will attempt to allow regulators to go after Facebook, Google, and Twitter for how they handle content posted on their platforms. He and other Republicans are specifically targeting Section 230, a part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that acts as a shield and a sword for internet platforms. They’re generally not liable for the content posted on their platforms (the shield), and they can police their platforms however they like (the sword). Now Mark Zuckerberg is weighing in. So is Sen. Josh Hawley. And a bunch of other people.
Here’s the thing: Republicans have been complaining about supposed social media bias against conservatives for a long time. Last year, Trump hosted a sham social media summit at the White House during which he declined to invite the big social media companies. And Hawley — sometimes seriously, sometimes not — has had an eye on taking on Big Tech for quite some time.
There are legitimate questions to explore about the power and scope of tech giants, and there are debates to have about Section 230, too. Democrats have raised concerns about it as well.
But is now really the time, given, you know, everything?
100,000 coronavirus deaths and a “Stay Tuned” on Twitter
On Wednesday evening, the official coronavirus death count in the United States surpassed 100,000 people. And yet on Wednesday and Thursday, Trump fired off multiple tweets about his feud with Twitter and his upcoming executive order before acknowledging the deaths. When asked about the timing of Trump’s tweets at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president had lowered flags to half-staff the day before.
It appears as though the president’s attention right now is trained very much on Twitter, a label put on a tweet, and whether or not he can lie on social media with absolute impunity, which he’s done freely until Twitter’s action this week. It’s also important to note that Twitter’s move was a small one. It didn’t take down his tweets. It didn’t take down his account. And it’s hard to imagine Twitter ever would make such a move, since its policies specifically grant exceptions to posts from world leaders, which are considered “newsworthy.”
Trump lies a lot, so you can see why, for him, it would be annoying that a platform might start to flag when he does it — especially months ahead of an election. This fits into a clearly established narrative and campaign plan he’s pursued for a while to distract the press and the public from more urgent issues, and to create a political boogeyman in tech companies. And the president seeks to politicize everything, including a public health emergency, which will ultimately impact how social media companies approach the matter.
But of all the things for him to be focusing on right now, it’s hard to justify why a Twitter fact-check would be the top priority.
As Vox’s German Lopez has laid out, the Trump administration wasted weeks and even months of valuable time at the onset of the coronavirus crisis, as it spread abroad and to the US. It lagged behind other countries in terms of testing, contact tracing, and health care capacity in vital moments. And the delays, not only at the federal level but across the country, led to an estimated 36,000 more lives lost than if the government had acted sooner, according to Columbia University.
The president, staying true to form, has often congratulated himself for his coronavirus response. Earlier this week, he estimated that if he hadn’t “done his job well,” more than a million people would have died. And for any shortcomings, he tends to blame others — China, the states, etc.
While the situation has improved modestly in the US, the coronavirus crisis is not over. Scientists are still searching for treatments and vaccines, and it’s unclear whether reopenings will bring about a resurgence in the disease or if we’ll see cases start to crop up again in the fall. And there is also the economic aspect of the crisis: Millions of people have lost their jobs; businesses have been shuttered, some permanently; and there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty about what’s ahead.
The White House’s priorities seem more than a bit off
It’s been difficult to parse the White House’s logic on what counts as urgent in all of this and what does not. Twitter label? Code red. State economies going under? Their own fault, especially if they’re blue states. Another stimulus? Eh, maybe let’s wait and see. Trump seems eager to take the victory lap on coronavirus, even though testing is only just now getting up to speed and a vaccine is months and even years away. The Defense Department on Thursday announced it has signed a contract to increase domestic production of N-95 ventilator filters and respirators — but not until August.
There’s no way to get into the president’s head and clearly identify his motivations on this, but it’s fair to make some informed judgments, given his patterns of action and personality. Sure, he’s probably bothered by Twitter. He also knows this is a way to distract from more serious issues and is well aware this is a way to gin up his base and generate anger to help propel his campaign forward. This is an easy button to push for Trump, and one he’s pushed before — there was a similar dustup over a social media bias draft out of the White House in August 2019.
But this isn’t just a distraction for the media or for the public — it’s also a distraction for Trump. And the president has already admitted that earlier distractions hindered his coronavirus response. In March, he said that he was “probably” sidetracked by impeachment earlier this year as the virus spread. Now worried about the Twitter fact-check, the president is sidetracked again. It’s a vital moment for the country, and he’s focusing his right to lie on one specific online platform. After all, as Mark Zuckerberg’s made clear, Facebook has no problem with it. Trump wants to win reelection in November, and that’s his focus right now. Bashing Twitter is a means to that end.