Trump and Twitter: A match made in the Oval Office?

Trump and Twitter: A match made in the Oval Office?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently met with President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE to discuss “the health of the public conversation” on the platform. News about the meeting left many bewildered. Many, like media critic Jay Rosen, have been calling for journalists to “suspend normal relations” with the Trump administration for its abuse of media, yet Twitter appears to be seeking to improve such relations. 

Some argue that Twitter needs Trump. There may be a measure of truth to that — many described the company’s growth during and following the 2016 election as a “Trump bump.” But Trump arguably needs Twitter more. How can his administration get away with not holding press conferences? Twitter. How can he so effectively spread misinformation? Twitter. 

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It is not that Twitter is the sole or even primary means through which Trump reaches the public. As a recent study by the Pew Research Center reveals, the portion of the American public that uses Twitter is relatively small (just 22 percent), and that those users are far from representative of American society as a whole.

Still, Trump uses Twitter to “gatecrash,” or minimize his reliance on professional media gatekeepers to spread his message. Twitter, open even to non-users, has proven to be a remarkably powerful platform where the president can reach his follower base of nearly 60 million. As of a few months ago, Trump had tweeted more than 5,400 times since taking office.  

The president’s end-around the Washington press ironically reaches the professional journalists who use Twitter. My research has shown that while political journalists rarely focused their reporting directly on Trump’s use of Twitter, they relied extensively on his tweets for fodder when covering other issues. In this sense, Trump’s tweets have been remarkably successful as a form of agenda-setting — using social media to shape what professional media, and by extension, the public, think about. 

Trump nevertheless has long claimed that Twitter and other(social) media companies are biased against him because he is a Republican. Not only does this charge appear to be baseless and petty (the focus has been over his loss of fake followers), but it also ignores how frequently the company looks the other way when he violates their terms of service with dehumanizing rhetoric, harmful threats, or other forms of bullyish incivility.

Twitter’s reasoning is roughly the same as that which shaped the process and outcome of the Mueller investigation: as president, he is above the law. 

But Twitter is not above the law. Despite the promise of their recent earnings report, the company is still in a tough position, trying to rebuild the platform — and more importantly, its culture — after practically handing it over to extremists. It is difficult to adequately regulate speech and eliminate manipulation on such a large and seemingly diverse platform, and it may even be impossible to strike a perfect balance between free speech and censorship of illegitimate content. But that fact does not absolve them of their responsibility to try (harder). Failure to do so could increase the chances that Twitter — and indeed, Facebook and Google, alike — will face stiff sanctions from Congress. 

According to one employee, Twitter could use artificial intelligence to detect and eradicate white supremacist content, for example, but has chosen not to because the method would also affect many Republican politicians. Instead, they have opted to take a gentler, more laissez faire approach. This week, the company launched a feature allowing users to report misinformation related to political campaigns. Similarly, Twitter is reportedly considering adding labels to Trump’s tweets that violate its policies. 

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But Twitter still needs to do more to curb harassment and extremism, including the kind that’s created or amplified by the president. At a recent TED event, Dorsey opted to take questions live (via Twitter, of course), only to find himself flooded with inquiries about what the company was doing about harassment, manipulation and extremism. The criticism was so overwhelming that they shut down the live feed of user questions. The message was clear: Failure to act could mean further alienating the public, including many of its core users. 

Trust is key in media, as in most industries. If Twitter wants to rebuild it, at least among the majority of the public still tethered to reality, it needs to turn down whatever deal Trump may have tried to strike with them.

Trump has already shown a willingness to rev up his Twitter use, which might net the company short-term gains. But the further loss of decency and truth in public discourse will be traced back to Twitter. And, while the problem is admittedly much larger than one institution, it’s an association the social media giant cannot seem to shake. 

Stephen R. Barnard is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Lawrence University, in New York. He is the author of “Citizens at the Gates: Twitter, Networked Publics, and the Transformation of American Journalism.”