Would Twitter Ever Suspend Trump’s Account?

Posted January 3, 2018 4:03 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump boasted Tuesday evening that he had a “nuclear button” that is “much bigger” and “more powerful” than North Korea’s, again prompting fears that an errant tweet could lead to a nuclear conflict. (It is worth noting that there is no nuclear button.)

The remark led to an immediate debate over whether Trump had broken Twitter’s rules and whether the platform should bar him from posting.

A company spokeswoman said in an interview Wednesday that the tweet had not violated its terms of service.

The platform’s policy says that only “specific threats of violence or wishing for serious physical harm, death, or disease to an individual or group of people” constitute violations.

Is there any situation that would cause Twitter to suspend or ban Trump?

In theory, yes. Twitter has insisted that there are no exceptions to its rules and that all individuals using the platform must adhere to them, or risk disciplinary action or permanent suspension.

But the company refuses to entertain hypothetical scenarios about suspending high-profile accounts, including that of Trump. It remains to be seen whether, in practice, the president could violate the platform’s rules in a way that would get him suspended.

Questioned about the president in a Wired interview last year, Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive, said that all users would be held to the same standard. But he pointed out that Twitter’s policies made an exception for newsworthiness, a factor that must be considered in regard to any and all of the president’s tweets.

“I think it’s really important that we maintain open channels to our leaders, whether we like what they’re saying or not,” he said.

Has a Trump tweet raised these questions in the past?

Yes, including on Sept. 23, when another threat toward North Korea led to a similar outcry.

“Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N.,” Trump tweeted. “If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”

Twitter declined to take the tweet down.

“We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether Tweets violate our Rules. Among the considerations is ‘newsworthiness’ and whether a Tweet is of public interest,” the company said. “This has long been internal policy and we’ll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it. We need to do better on this, and will.”

Does Twitter treat the president differently from other users?

Twitter bans what it calls abusive behavior, or “behavior that harasses, intimidates or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.” For example, writer Milo Yiannopoulos was barred in 2016 amid coordinated harassment of comedian Leslie Jones.

But there are caveats, including that passage, in the rules about tweets that are deemed in the legitimate public interest.

That language suggests that in some, if not many cases, a user whose tweets fit that definition — like the president — would have more leeway than others when engaging in abusive behavior.

Twitter acknowledges that decisions about policing newsworthy accounts can be difficult.

But its spokeswoman pointed out that the company had taken recent action against other accounts that fit the definition. This week the platform temporarily suspended the former Milwaukee sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., who was reported by other users for violating Twitter’s terms of service.

How does the company decide who to bar?

It’s unclear. Twitter will not comment on its internal deliberations over complaints about any individual tweet or account.

How has its stance on violent language and harassment changed recently?

Twitter has made several changes to its guidelines in recent months involving sexual content and abusive language, though many users have called for more.

In December, the company began enforcing new rules on violence. “Specific threats of violence or wishing for serious physical harm, death, or disease to an individual or group of people is in violation of our policies,” it said in a blog post. It also banned hateful imagery and symbols in profile images and headers.

Twitter pulled some white supremacist organizations and other extremists from the platform soon after, citing the new policies. Others, including David Duke and Richard B. Spencer, remain.