After Joe Biden is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021, Donald Trump’s 11-year, anti-establishment, conspiracy-fueled salvos on Twitter could come to a screeching halt for repeatedly violating the platform’s content rules.
Twitter, which has committed to more stringent rules against peddling misinformation this year, like labeling rule-breaking tweets, has repeatedly slapped Trump on the wrist for his behavior. But unlike normal platform abusers, the company has refused to banish Trump outright because, well, he’s the president. Twitter’s “World Leaders” policy was codified last year and treats some rule-breaking tweets as newsworthy. But that designation will no longer protect Trump once he’s a former president.
For decades, Donald Trump built his ultra-famous rich-guy persona through traditional media. He was a fixture in the New York tabloids, slapped his name on ghostwritten business books, fired reality show contestants on The Apprentice, and phoned into cable talk shows like Fox and Friends and Morning Joe. But while newspapers, books and television played a sizable role in Trump’s political ascent, he crafted his political ascent on Twitter.
So, Twitter is faced with a predicament: When Trump inevitably keeps breaking the platform’s rules, will the company give its most notorious user—who has 88 million followers—the permanent boot?
“Twitter’s ‘World Leaders’ policy makes sense because it’s important that citizens know what their elected leaders are saying, even when—and, maybe, especially when—what they’re saying is offensive or wrong,” Jameel Jaffer, The Knight First Amendment Institute executive director, told Adweek. “But the logic behind that policy doesn’t apply to former officials,” he said, adding Twitter could exercise its own First Amendment right to kick Trump off the platform.
The Knight First Amendment Institute is intimately familiar with Trump’s account. The free speech advocacy group successfully sued the president for blocking individual critics on Twitters, citing First Amendment violations.
If Trump continues to break site rules, Twitter will “presumably disable his account, as it should,” Jaffer added. The company has already announced that, whether or not he concedes the election, Trump will lose access to the @POTUS handle when Biden assumes office.
“Trump’s common offenses have been, and will continue to be, spreading misinformation and using racist/sexist languages,” said Cuihua (Cindy) Shen, an associate professor University of California, Davis. “But such offenses hardly ever get anyone suspended.” Since Twitter has moved emphatically toward labeling misinformation, which “seems to be working well,” Trump will need to do more than spread lies to get a harsher penalty after Jan. 20.
Twitter’s policies haven’t always been clear or evenly enforced, said Shen, who studies online social networks.
“The most likely reason that Trump might be suspended (if he ever will be), is incitement of violence,” Shen said. “If Trump ever does incite or glorifies violence, it will take a 100% unequivocal offense for Twitter to pull that trigger.”
Removing Trump would “create a colossal void” in Twitter’s network
Cindy Shen, University of California, Davis
Twitter first hid a Trump tweet behind a warning label on May 29 when the president tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That tweet, which seemingly urged the National Guard to shoot Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis, Minn. in the wake of the George Floyd shooting, caused Twitter to sanction Trump for “glorifying violence.” A similar violation in his post-presidency could cost him his platform.
Removing Trump would “create a colossal void” in Twitter’s entire network, Shen said, because “his absence means that Twitter will be a less valuable platform” for his followers, pundits, politicians and influencers in Trump’s orbit.