No, Twitter shouldn’t ban Donald Trump

January 5, 2018
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

Let’s face it—Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, is a classic Twitter troll. The Troll in Chief, if you will. He routinely uses the platform to lash out at his critics, he peddles fake news and conspiracy theories, and he has repeatedly threatened to start a nuclear war with North Korea. But does all of this bad behavior mean Twitter should ban him from using the network? No, and there are several good reasons why.

Calls to ban Trump have been around for some time, based on the idea that his routine harassment of other users represents a breach of Twitter’s code of conduct. But the pressure on Twitter to take action has ramped up recently, driven in part by tweets like the one Trump posted Tuesday, in which he belittled North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un and bragged about the size of his “nuclear button.”

Leaving aside the fact there is no nuclear button on the desk in the Oval Office, a number of commentators argued that this tweet was beyond the pale, and that Twitter should take action not just for the sake of other Twitter users but for the safety of the US as a whole. A scientist working with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (which runs the Doomsday Clock) called Trump’s tweets about North Korea “an existential threat to humanity.”

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Writing in The Atlantic, meanwhile, Conor Friedersdorf said that Trump’s tweet was “the most irresponsible tweet in history,” and called for the platform to block not just the president but all world leaders. Twitter “encourages impulsive hostility,” Friedersdorf argued (which is arguably true), and the results of such behavior are “potentially catastrophic.”

Twitter, for its part, said in a blog post published on Friday that “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”

Twitter is one of the primary news-delivery mechanisms of the 21st century, and the comments made there by the president of the United States are by definition newsworthy. After all, according to both former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and the Department of Justice, his tweets are are considered official statements from the president.

Apart from their news value, Trump’s tweets also provide something else, and that is a real-time look inside the mind and psyche of the president of the United States. It may be a dark place, and looking into it repeatedly may be soul-destroying and depressing for a number of reasons, but it is still arguably valuable to have those thoughts out in public where we can see them.

“We learn an enormous amount about his mindset from his tweets,” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter said in an interview with CJR earlier this year. “It’s a raw, shocking use of media by a president, like he’s hosting a late-night talk show—picking fights, getting even with enemies.”

Banning Trump would also be an example of the kind of censorship that Twitter and Facebook arguably already do too much of. It’s true that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private corporations like Twitter, which are allowed to regulate their content in any way they wish. But the idea that we should ban people from using dominant social platforms simply because we don’t like what they say is still problematic.

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This all leads to the third point, which is that blocking Trump from Twitter would be a big, fat present to the alt-right and conservative movements in the US, and to any of his supporters, because it would give them even more ammunition to argue that left-wing social media platforms are out to get conservative voices and remove their content whenever possible.

Are there risks in having the president tweet whatever pops into his mind? Of course. The idea that he could tweet his way into a nuclear war with North Korea seems like a bit of a stretch, but he can certainly complicate negotiations with all sorts of countries (and probably has), move the share prices of public companies, and target people for criticism unnecessarily.

Another risk is the media will pay too much attention to specific tweets by Trump, some of which could be designed to distract or shift attention away from more important issues, like the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russian government operatives. For a press corps that is desperate to generate traffic and revenue by any means possible, Trump’s Twitter pronouncements can be like manna from heaven.

These are all valid points to make when criticizing the president’s tweets and/or the media’s response. But that doesn’t mean the president should be removed from Twitter completely—and doing so could have far more negative consequences than it would positive ones.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.