Twitter-Trump Tension Mounts on Warning Over Shooting Tweetby Nate Lanxon, Vlad Savov
- Social media company has obscured the offending message
- Trump has signed order to cut protection for social platforms
Tensions between Twitter Inc. and Donald Trump soared after the social-media platform warned users that the president broke its rules against violent speech, prompting critics to accuse the company of unfairly censoring one of its most prominent users.
On Friday Twitter slapped a rule-violation notice on a Trump tweet warning protesters in Minnesota that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Earlier this week Twitter added a fact-check label to two Trump posts that made unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting. Infuriated, Trump responded with an executive order Thursday that aims to curb some of the legal protections social media sites have regarding content on their sites.
Twitter has long faced calls to both clean up the toxic culture on its site and to remove Trump, who has tweeted falsehoods and misleading information to his 80 million followers. After years of largely staying on the sidelines, the company has recently become more active in policing commentary from public officials.
The shift has inevitably outraged many of Trump’s supporters, who claim the site is biased against conservative voices. Twitter’s crackdown also opens it up to charges that its fact-checking is inconsistent. On Friday, just hours after Trump’s Minnesota tweet was flagged, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission challenged Twitter over a bellicose posting from Iran’s top leader asking if it also violated the company’s rules.
“Serious question for @Twitter: Do these tweets from Supreme Leader of Iran@khamenei_ir violate ‘Twitter Rules about glorifying violence?’” Ajit Pai said in a tweet. He attached screen shots of May 22 tweets from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei predicting the eventual elimination of Israel.
Some of Twitter’s initial flags on officials’ posts were related to misinformation about Covid-19 that the company deemed potentially harmful. Racial violence is another area open to abuse on the site and a topic Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey has taken personally. In 2014 he marched in protests and documented rising tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black man.
Trump’s tweet early Friday referred to increasingly violent protests in Minneapolis over the killing in police custody of George Floyd, who was black. The authorities on Friday charged police officer Derek Chauvin with Floyd’s murder, according to the Associated Press.
The president used Twitter to assail Minneapolis’s mayor, Jacob Frey, as weak and said he had told Minnesota Governor Tim Walz that “the military is with him all the way, ” and that if there was any difficulty, “we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Twitter obscured the offending message on Trump’s profile with the following warning: “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”
The official White House Twitter account later retweeted Trump’s post about looting and shooting. It also was marked with a warning.
“We’ve taken action in the interest of preventing others from being inspired to commit violent acts,” Twitter said in a statement on its @TwitterComms account. It said the company had kept Trump’s tweet live “because it is important that the public still be able to see the Tweet given its relevance to ongoing matters of public importance.”
The president’s tweets about the situation in Minneapolis prompted a strong response from other Twitter users, but those replies have since been hidden or removed by the company. The options to reply and like the tweet have also been disabled, while the retweet and quote-tweet functions have been left active.
The Telegraph newspaper in the U.K. called Twitter’s move “perhaps the bravest and riskiest thing that any tech giant has ever done.”
Following up from his executive order, Trump on Friday morning called on lawmakers on Capitol Hill to revoke Twitter’s liability shield under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which allows companies like Twitter and Facebook Inc. to display content that’s controversial, offensive and libelous without fear of lawsuits.
Dorsey this year survived a skirmish with activist investor Elliott Management Corp., partly with an agreement to appoint Elliott representative Jesse Cohn and Egon Durban of the private equity firm Silver Lake to its board. He also agreed to meet certain performance-improvement metrics. Paul Singer, who founded Elliott in 1977, is often described as a megadonor to the Republican party.
As part of the agreement, Cohn and Durban said they would recuse themselves of any direct or indirect influence on the content of the Twitter platform, including its policies, rules or enforcement decisions. The company said in a statement at the time that both Elliott and Silver Lake said they were doing so to emphasize the importance of maintaining the independence and impartiality of the Twitter platform and its rules and enforcement.
Protests have been gathering force across the country following the death of Floyd, who died when a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck in an encounter that was captured on video. The event set off scattered looting and demonstrations in Minneapolis, culminating in the burning of a police station on Friday. Demonstrators have gathered in cities from New York to Los Angeles, to Memphis, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky, to call attention to the killings of black men and women at the hands of police. Some of the gatherings were peaceful, but others were marked by violence, including in Columbus, Ohio, where crowds surged up the steps of the State Capitol and broke windows, according to the New York Times.
Trump’s shooting and looting tweet echoed remarks in the late 1960s by the controversial and tough-talking Miami Police Chief Walter Headley. “We haven’t had any serious problems with civil uprising and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Headley said in 1967.
Trump later attempted to explain the earlier tweet, saying on Twitter, “looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.” He continued in another tweet, “It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement. It’s very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media.”
The spreading violence was another sign of simmering tensions in the U.S., where much of the country has been on lockdown for more than two months and unemployment has reached historic highs. Some see Trump’s reaction to Twitter as a tactic to deflect attention from the country’s woes in the months leading up to the presidential election this fall.
“This is a fight he wants. Not only on Twitter, but on mail-in ballots,” said California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, speaking on The View Friday morning. “It’s a deflecting tool, but it’s also a mobilizing tool for his base. We have to walk through this next process of how we respond with those eyes wide open and that in mind.”
— With assistance by Molly Schuetz, and Scott Deveau