As an uprising ravaged Minneapolis, Minn., in the aftermath of the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, the president tweeted (at 12:53 a.m.):
That first tweet remains unaltered. However, Trump quickly followed up the tweet with another one that has been flagged by Twitter for violating its rules against “glorifying violence,” but was not removed after the platform determined “that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible,” according to a label Twitter added to the tweet. (We’ve used a screenshot of the tweet below, as embedding it does not display the label.)
Users also cannot currently like or reply to the offending tweet. They can retweet or quote-tweet it, but the number count that indicates how many people have done so has been deactivated.
Such action is well within Twitter’s purview. As a private company, it can moderate users’ speech as it sees fit—even that of its most notorious user.
But this labeling comes after days of escalating tension between the president and the social media company, which first took the then-unprecedented step of labeling two of his tweets about mail-in ballots as misleading Wednesday.
The president lashed out after that, accusing the social platform of interfering with the election and threatening to shut it down. In a seemingly retaliatory move Thursday, Trump signed an executive order seeking to curtail liability protections long afforded to online platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Legal experts told Adweek this week that Trump has no legal basis to punish a private company for its own political speech. Further, he cannot legally demand his speech be unaltered on a private platform, and has little grounds to affect legislation or longstanding court precedent with his executive order.
But with its decision to label the president’s tweets as misleading on Wednesday, Twitter has opened up Pandora’s box. Every tweet the president posts will be scrutinized more harshly because the platform has now moderated his tweets. And it did not take too long to see that in action.
“That last Trump tweet—a direct threat on protesters—seems to be the most brazen test of Twitter’s joke of a newsworthiness loophole,” New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel tweeted today. “Given all that happened this week, it seems hard to imagine that the president isn’t going to continually try to cross all the company’s lines.”
Why Trump can’t accuse Twitter of violating the First Amendment
As a private company, Twitter’s decisions on what is in the public interest is, again, its own decision to make. But, for the time being at least, the company will seemingly focus on elected and government officials “given the significant public interest in knowing and being able to discuss their actions and statements,” according to Twitter’s rules.
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said the president’s accusations of censorship are an effort to “distract.”
“The First Amendment protects Twitter’s right to respond to the president’s speech, including by attaching warnings to tweets that glorify violence,” Jaffer said. “Fundamentally, this dispute is about whether Twitter has the right to disagree with, criticize and respond to the president. Obviously, it does. It is remarkable and truly chilling that the president and his advisers seem to believe otherwise.”
Twitter’s move is unprecedented. Its fact-check label Friday was the first time it used a “public interest notice” on a Trump tweet, a company spokesperson confirmed to Adweek. Wednesday’s label about misinformation simply redirected users to more information on mail-in ballots.
The spokesperson said the label on Trump’s tweet about violence was placed “based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.” The line “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” derives from a 1967 speech from former Miami police chief Walter Headley. Rioting began in Miami that year after police dangled black teenager Robert Owens over a bridge by his feet.
Early this morning, @WhiteHouse, the official White House Twitter account, tweeted the exact text of Trump’s flagged second tweet about Minneapolis while quote-tweeting his original, unflagged comments. Twitter has also flagged that tweet: