The Memo: Trump ratchets up Twitter turmoil

President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE’s battle with Twitter intensified on Friday, sparking new debates around the combustible themes of race, policing and protest.

Trump has been accused of inciting violence. The president has suggested that he would like to shut Twitter down if he could.

The question is where the row might go next, given the conflicting dynamics at play. 

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Twitter enables Trump to go around the traditional media and communicate directly with his 80 million followers — even as he fulminates about alleged bias in Silicon Valley. 

Twitter benefits from the news Trump makes on its platform and the engagement he drives — even as it has come under increasing pressure to police his misstatements more forcefully.

The most explosive moment yet came in the early hours of Friday, as unrest flared in Minneapolis following the death of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of police earlier in the week.

Shortly before 1 a.m. — with a police precinct evacuated and ablaze —Trump tweeted that protesters were “THUGS,” a term that has come to be seen as racially loaded. Trump said that the federal government was willing to help restore order and then added, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

Those words sparked immediate backlash and were widely seen as a threat of violence against protesters. The phrase appears to have its provenance in comments made by a hardline Miami police chief in the late 1960s in reference to upheaval in black neighborhoods.

Trump has since insisted that this is not what he meant. In a Friday afternoon tweet, he said “looting leads to shooting…and that’s what the expression put out last night means.”

By then, however, Twitter had appended a warning to the original tweet, stating that it violated the platform’s rules against “glorifying violence.” 

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This followed on from an earlier fracas, when Twitter added a fact-check to a Trump tweet alleging that voting by mail would lead to widespread fraud. 

The action — the first of its kind, despite the many previous Trump Twitter controversies — sparked a furious counterblast from the president, including the release of a new executive order on Thursday. Unveiling that order at the White House, Trump said of Twitter that he would like to “shut it down” if he deemed the company to have behaved dishonorably.

Virtually no-one believes a president has the power to shut down a company over the kind of issue that is the focus of Trump’s complaints. But his actions — and Twitter’s reactions — have created a deepening maelstrom.

Even some right-of-center voices worry that Trump’s proposed actions could be counterproductive.

“There is a tremendous risk that this comes back and bites not just conservatives but Trump supporters in particular,” said Liz Mair, a GOP strategist and former online communications director for the Republican National Committee. “It’s not well thought-out.”

Mair was alluding to the possibility that Trump’s push would lead Twitter and other social media platforms to take a more proactive role toward monitoring and winnowing content — something that could lead to aggressive voices on the right being muted or banished.

The core of the issue concerns legislation that renders many of the giants of the internet effectively immune from claims of defamation.

The legislation in question — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — holds that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In effect, this means that companies like Twitter and Facebook are seen, in the eyes of the law, as neutral platforms for the provision of content. This is dramatically different from the status of newspapers and broadcasting networks, which are legally responsible for the accuracy of the information they disseminate.

There has been growing disquiet about Section 230 on both sides of the aisle — and many liberals worry that it means hugely influential digital companies have no incentive to curb disinformation.

Chris Lu, who served as White House Cabinet Secretary under former President Obama, acknowledged that he thought the legislation “needs to be reexamined.” 

But many figures in the tech world argue that revoking or altering Section 230 would fundamentally change the whole internet. And Lu argued that the most pressing issue was how existing rules, drawn up by the companies themselves to govern content, are applied.

He alluded not just to Trump’s tweets about Minneapolis and about voting by mail but also Trump’s untrue insinuation that MSNBC host Joe ScarboroughCharles (Joe) Joseph ScarboroughThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low Cheney clashes with Trump Trump dings CNN, 'Morning Joe' ratings as Tucker Carlson sets record MORE had been involved in the death of a staffer back in 2001, when Scarborough was a Republican congressman. 

The woman, 28-year-old Lori Klausutis, died as the result of an undiagnosed heart condition on a day when Scarborough was hundreds of miles away. Klausutis’s widower has appealed to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to delete Trump’s tweets on the matter, but that has not happened.

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“Twitter has the right to police things or not police things, but there seems to be an inconsistency,” Lu said. “If you or I had gone on there and charged someone with murder or incited violence, we would have got kicked off Twitter a long time ago.”

In October 2019, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJaime Harrison seeks to convince Democrats he can take down Lindsey Graham Senators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter MORE (D-Calif.) called for Twitter to suspend Trump’s account. Her push gained no real traction, even though she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time.

There is new outrage on the left about Trump’s tweet about shooting and looters. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter The Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low MORE (D-Mass.), who also ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination, on Friday accused the president of “calling for violence against Black Americans,” and added “his advocacy of illegal, state-sponsored killing is horrific.”

In one sign that Trump’s tweet had sparked outrage beyond the usual bounds, it also drew condemnation from pop singer Taylor SwiftTaylor Alison SwiftObama to participate in virtual Stonewall anniversary event Taylor Swift makes Juneteenth a holiday for her staff Thousands sign petition to replace Confederate statues in Tennessee with Dolly Parton MORE, who has avoided political statements for most of her career.

Swift tweeted that Trump had been “stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency,” accused him of “threatening violence” and pledged “we will vote you out in November.”

Swift is one of the small proportion of Twitter users who has more followers than Trump — 86.2 million for Swift to 80.6 million for Trump, as of Friday evening.

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But there is, as usual, little sign that the president or his allies are backing down. 

Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE on Friday afternoon released a statement complaining about “the media’s relentless twisting of President Trump’s words” in relation to Minneapolis. 

“Twitter also played a role by mislabeling the President’s tweet and fueling the misinformation,” Parscale asserted.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.