Twitter has been making up policy as it goes along, because it has had to. It has been more transparent this year about its decisions than it was in years prior, because demands for accountability have finally reached an unignorable pitch, but we can still only speculate about much of its decision-making process. For this story, I asked Twitter a series of questions that it did not answer. It would not tell me whether there had been any discussion of disabling accounts—such as those of Trump’s sons, who are not elected officials—that have been tweeting election misinformation for a week, racking up warning labels and driving a conspiracy theory that has already become violent. It would not tell me whether, if Trump were to immediately announce, as he has hinted, a run for the presidency in 2024, this would qualify him as a current political candidate and entitle him to exemption protection once again.
Twitter would not tell me whether Trump would get suspended or banned if he continued to tweet destabilizing election misinformation after January 20, 2021. The company would not say who would be empowered to make the call, or how much detail the company would provide about its reasoning if it did so. As with so many of the decisions made by the platforms that determine the course of our conversations and the fate of our democracy, we’ll just have to wait and see.
There is an argument to be made that none of this really matters: That Trump is too large a presence and too magnetic a personality to ever disappear; that you can never truly deplatform a former president. When Twitter banned Jones in 2018—a move that dramatically limited his reach—the radio host had less than a million followers. His audience was tiny compared to Trump’s. No person as well-known or influential as Trump has ever been banned, so there’s no saying for sure what downstream effects a ban would have.
But we’ve had four years to see what the effects of not banning him are. If Trump is allowed to stay on Twitter, his power over the discourse will not fade away after he leaves office. He has gained more than 60 million followers throughout this presidency, and losing reelection has not cost him one iota of social-media stardom; he’s gained another 1.5 million followers since Election Day. There’s no reason to think he won’t use this enormous audience to continue endangering people’s lives with falsehoods—a recent study found that Trump and 20 of his high-profile supporters were the source of 20 percent of retweets of election misinformation, and another found that Trump himself was “the largest driver” of coronavirus misinformation.
Trump can continue to push both of those narratives even out of office, and they can continue to take a toll on the American people. Kate Starbird, a researcher at the University of Washington who has studied the spread of disinformation, told me she didn’t think Twitter would deactivate Trump’s account and didn’t have an opinion on whether it should, but that it would absolutely have a huge impact if it did. “Donald Trump has an effect on the ecosystem of Twitter that is massive,” she said. She demonstrated with an anecdote. The systems that she uses to do her research can collect 50 tweets a second. Usually that’s fine. But when her team was collecting data on Twitter mentions of hydroxychloroquine in the spring, it was impossible to keep up. As soon as Trump entered the conversation, 50 tweets a second became only a tiny percentage of the data.
“He has a hugely outsized impact on the discourse,” she told me. For as long as Trump keeps his account on Twitter, reality will be skewed. The longer he stays there, the harder it will be to see.
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