Some cheered and others raised concerns when President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, a mouthpiece for the U.S. presidency, briefly and mysteriously went dark.
“My Twitter account was taken down for 11 minutes by a rogue employee,” Trump wrote from his restored account early Friday morning, making light of the Thursday evening outage that vexed many of his millions of followers. “I guess the word must finally be getting out – and having an impact.”
Twitter on Thursday night blamed a customer support worker for deactivating Trump’s account on his or her last day on the job. The San Francisco-based social media company has promised a “full internal review” and said it is taking steps to prevent it from happening again. It has declined further explanation, raising questions not only about its own safeguards but on Trump’s heavy reliance on a single platform to broadcast his views.
While Twitter’s customer service employees have the ability to suspend or remove accounts, or delete individual tweets, over violations of service terms, they cannot post on someone else’s account. What’s less clear is if the company has tougher safeguards for taking action on higher-profile accounts, such as Trump’s.
“It’s not surprising that even the brief shutdown of the president’s Twitter account has provoked debate,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which filed a federal lawsuit last month challenging Trump’s practice of blocking Twitter users who criticize him or his policies.
Twitter has been Trump’s primary means of communicating with the masses since even before he launched his presidential campaign. During the campaign and in the White House, Trump has been open about resisting pleas from family and friends to set aside his mobile device and to act more presidential. Trump says the service allows him to get his message out to his supporters without the filter of the media, but it’s also allowed him to circumvent his own staff.
Trump’s twitter missives frequently catch even senior aides off guard, such as when he ratcheted up the rhetoric on North Korea this summer. Bombarded with questions about the 140-character policy statements or political attacks, White House staffers are often in the dark themselves. “The tweets speak for themselves,” is a common refrain from staff unable or unwilling to explain the president’s comments.
Jaffer said Friday that “love it or hate it, the account has become an important source of news and information about the government” and Trump’s tweets “often shed light on official decisions and policies — and even when they don’t, they shed light on the temperament, character, and motives of the person most responsible for them.”
Trump uses Instagram and Facebook sparingly, usually to amplify items he has already tweeted. He directly controls the @realdonaldtrump account on Twitter, while aides control the other platforms. Trump has been using that account since 2009; it now counts more than 41 million followers.
Twitter has struggled in recent months in how it enforces, and explains, its procedures for managing accounts that violate its policies designed to prevent hate, harassment and other abuse of the platform. The company, along with Facebook and Google, faced grilling from Congress this week over Russian use of social media to interfere in last year’s presidential elections. Twitter has also faced outcry when it temporarily suspended actress Rose McGowan’s account while she was speaking out against Harvey Weinstein.
That’s why when Trump’s account went dark Thursday, some observers assumed it was a formal rebuke. His critics celebrated.
“Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump’s Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes,” wrote U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who offered to buy the unidentified employee a Pizza Hut pizza.
Other critics suggested the lull was too brief, or jokingly speculated the disgruntled employee was an antagonist from the public sphere, from special counsel Robert Mueller to the rogue stormtrooper from a recent “Star Wars” movie.
Trump supporters warned of censorship.
Just days earlier, the company had shut down the personal account of a close Trump ally, Roger Stone, after a profanity-laced tirade insulting journalists. Stone responded by calling the company the “totalitarian corporate thought police.”
“My feed was not for the faint-hearted,” Stone wrote in an online essay this week. “It was pungent, pugnacious and sometimes risque. Not as over the top (as) the hordes on Twitter who have threatened to kill me, my wife, my kids and my dogs but then Twitter doesn’t seem to care about banning them.”
Twitter has said it won’t ban Trump, even though his critics say he has violated the social media site’s rules against harassment, intimidation and attacking people based on categories such as race, ethnicity and gender. An hour after musing about his temporary Twitter deactivation, Trump on Friday was again disparaging Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” because she has mentioned having American Indian heritage.
Free speech advocates have said that it’s better to keep Trump on the platform , and it should not be up to private companies to decide whether the president has a voice there.