President Donald Trump is the most visible user of Twitter, and has more than 63 million followers. Many recent tweets employ hate speech, personal attacks, and smears that appear to violate Twitter’s own standards. But the company has made no effort to rein in the president’s offensive speech, even as other users have been suspended, or banned, for less.
In this podcast, Peter B. Collins is joined by Mark Karlin, editor of Buzzflash, and Russ Baker, editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.
Karlin, who recently posted an article calling on Twitter to ban Trump, notes that one-time Trump advisor and recently-turned-foe Anthony Scaramucci was suspended from the platform for 12 hours recently, for reportedly fat-shaming his former boss in a tweet.
Karlin quotes from Twitter’s policies that state that users “may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone” and “may not promote violence against, threaten or harass other people,” and argues that Trump has repeatedly crossed these lines. Baker comments on Trump’s skillful use of tweets to his base, and suggests that the company would face financial losses and uncertain regulatory responses if Twitter were to discipline Trump.
We also discuss two other tweetworthy topics: (1) the recent federal appeals court ruling that it’s illegal for Trump to block Twitter users who criticize his tweets and (2) the new White House project to attack journalists who write reports critical of the administration, by revealing embarrassing tweets made by the reporters.
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|Peter B. Collins:||Welcome to another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. One of the disruptive tech companies is based here in San Francisco, Twitter, allows people to send short messages, to troll and be trolled, to attack and counterattack, and one of the most prominent users of Twitter is Donald J. Trump who claims more than 63 million followers. And as we know, the President tweets and tweets and tweets some more, and much of what he does falls into an area that can be called hate speech. It does appear to frequently violate the community standards that have been set up by Twitter itself for this online community that it has developed. Mark Karlin hails from BuzzFlash. He started that site back in 2000, and continues to publish progressive media information on a regular basis. Mark published a piece just a couple of weeks ago entitled Donald Trump Should Be Banned from Twitter. His Abusive Incendiary Racist Tweets Grossly Violate Twitter’s Terms of Service. Mark, thanks for being with us today.|
|Mark Karlin:||Thank you, Peter.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Also with us is Russ Baker. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy. Russ, thank you for being with us today.|
|Russ Baker:||Glad to do it.|
|Peter B. Collins:||So Mark, let’s start with you, because as I emailed to you after I read your piece, this is something that occurred to me a little bit before you wrote that. I have been increasingly offended by Trump’s tweets, and even more offended by the fuzzy standards that Twitter uses to sometimes suspend or ban for life individuals whose tweets in my opinion don’t measure up to the volume or the invective that Trump frequently expresses through his Twitter account.|
|Mark Karlin:||They have very clear standards. They may interpret them with some latitude, but there are two of only a few criteria on which they will suspend or ban someone. Two of those are abuse/slash/harassment, and then hateful conduct. Most of Trump twitters, at least I would say speculate half, fall into those two areas. I mean, we just need to look back at the recent month when he attacked the so-called Squad, accused two Congress women who are US citizens of being disloyal, and that they should go back to their own country. He called a black area of Baltimore that’s represented by Elijah Cummings, who is investigating the Trump organization and family, rat-infested and vermin, and I think this could be interpreted as meaning he was not just talking about the area, but about the people who live there, that is to say I feel was a racist tweet.|
|Mark Karlin:||But Twitter says very explicitly under abuse and harassment, this is sure, “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so.” Now, clearly this is a major, major strategic objective of Trump on Twitter. He engages in the targeted harassment of people, and he incites other people to do so, as he does at his rallies also. Then the second standard hateful conduct is also very short. “You may not promote violence against, threaten or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” There’s no question that both of these criteria are lines that the President of the United States constantly crosses. Yet, Twitter as you said, Peter, will suspend or ban people for far less.|
|Mark Karlin:||In fact, in early 2017, they banned two people who were trolling Trump, and they just banned them outright for trolling Trump. Yet they say that they won’t suspend Trump because of his “newsworthiness”, that he is a special exception. This was in The Independent paper, because in 2017 Trump on another plane, this is the international political plane, had said that the leaders of North Korea would soon be gone. In response, and he tweeted this, the North Korean government said that it was going to start shooting down US planes that were near the airspace of North Korea. The Independent called Twitter, or emailed Twitter, and asked them why they don’t take that inciting tweet down. They said, because they have to consider many factors, and one of them is newsworthiness, and that the President of United States falls into that category of what they call “the public interest.” Yet, in the same answer response to The Independent they say they considered a number of factors, one assessing whether tweets violate our rules, but they hold all accounts to the same rules.|
|Mark Karlin:||Well, apparently they don’t hold the President of the United States to that account. In fact, one of the factors that initiated my writing, this commentary on BuzzFlash, was that the Mooch, Scaramucci, who has turned from a Trump toady to a Trump critic, had fat shamed Trump on Twitter. He said he was overweight, and he was fat, and Twitter suspended the Mooch’s account for 12 hours. They didn’t ban him, but fat shaming was enough to merit a suspension. Now, Trump has gone into the world of racial incitement, of misogyny, of xenophobia, of anti-immigration, of vitriolic attacks on people he perceived as political enemies, and they could be celebrities, Rosie O’Donnell. He’s gotten way beyond the pale of fat shaming with many of these people who criticize him.|
|Mark Karlin:||Yet, Twitter will do nothing. Now the president of true Twitter has met with Trump because Trump ironically has concerns, and he has said this, and I think most people who follow his words know that he claims that social media, including Facebook and Twitter are biased against conservatives. So he met with the head of Twitter, and the head of Twitter assured him that they were not biased against conservatives.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well, and Mark, I have directly tweeted at Jack Dorsey asking him to reevaluate their standards, to look at Trump’s recent tweets, and to take action. Russ Baker, how do you view this situation, and do you find the standards that Twitter says it uses to be evenly enforced?|
|Russ Baker:||Well, they’re clearly not evenly enforced. I mean, just to read Trump on a daily basis is to be shocked in the extreme. I certainly agree with Mark that there is a double standard. It’s interesting to consider where Twitter is coming from. I mean, Twitter is a for profit entity. I suspect it would be, I’d love to see some journalism on this how much money Twitter has made off of Trump, because he has, I’m guessing, been a huge growth center for Twitter, because people are so agitated one way or another as a result of him that they’ve taken so to speak to the airwaves. I think Trump has been very, very good for Twitter overall, financially, and I think that’s something that’s worth discussing. The second thing is, were they to ban the President of the United States, this would cause tremendous problems for the company.|
|Russ Baker:||By the way, I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t, but it’s just interesting. I’ve got my journalist hat on here. It would cause a huge problem for the company, not only financially, but what do you do once you’ve done something like that? It would make the company even more of a lightning rod than it is already, and they would be under pressure to justify doing that. So it’s a very tricky situation. I’m guessing that I’m assuming we all agree with Mark’s point that this language is absolutely hateful, that it involves fat shaming, and racial and ethnic slurs, and all kinds of verboten things, I guess the question then would be what could be done. I wonder if Twitter would consider bringing in some kind of a third party. I’m not sure who that would be, but some respected person or panel, almost like taking it to a court so to speak, and to ask them to evaluate these things objectively, and then decide on some kind of a course. Because certainly, I don’t know if they would ban him permanently, but they could certainly penalize him.|
|Russ Baker:||I mean, my God, if they could ban Scaramucci for 12 hours, certainly they could have periodic Trump outages.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well gentlemen, I have this recurring dream, and I rarely talk about dreams, but I wake up in the morning learning that Jack Dorsey has decided that in the national interest he is shutting down Twitter. That gets us around all the freedom of speech issues, and fairness matters. He could just say “I’ve had enough.”|
|Russ Baker:||I think we all have. We all would be relieved. I mean, I couldn’t keep it up anymore. It just takes too much out of you reading this stuff, writing this stuff. Oh my gosh. I mean, we’ve got better things to do.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well I agree, and I’m a light user of Twitter, but I usually am recoiling from what I read and saying, here’s another poke in the eye tweet from somebody who is puffing up his or her chest to become at least for the moment, some sort of an expert on the topic at hand. I’m always interested in people who post links to articles that I wouldn’t otherwise see. To me, that’s the greatest value of both Twitter and Facebook, but it’s very hard to persuade people. I have yet to see anybody say, “You know, I was wrong about that” on either Twitter or Facebook when they read an argument or an article that somebody has posted. So given that there’s very little persuasion available, it becomes more of a chest thumping kind of exercise. Mark, go ahead.|
|Mark Karlin:||That’s true, and Trump knows it better than anyone. I want to go back to two points Russ raised, which I include at the end of my article on why Twitter will probably never suspend or ban Trump, and I think for Russ phrased them very well. First of all, the President of the United States Donald J Trump has enhanced the brand of Twitter as important as many of his tweets are. Nonetheless, every time he tweets, which is generally many, many times a day and often early in the morning, the press, the mainstream corporate press feels it’s their obligation to amplify those tweets, and report on them no matter how virulent they are, or how inciting they are, or how inane they are. They consider every tweet as having news value. Now when they refer to the tweet, they’re referring to Twitter, and as Russ said, that only, only improves the profitability of Twitter, and the branding that they get from Trump using it, and from the repeated reference to his tweets in the mainstream media is literally priceless in terms of a branding opportunity.|
|Mark Karlin:||Companies simply can’t afford that. I mean, Coca-Cola pales in comparison because these are mentions of tweets and Twitter by Trump that are in almost every news cycle, and we now in this contemporary age have shorter and shorter news cycles. So I think that’s number one. Then what Russ said is I think the second point that I came to as to why they’ll never do it, they know that Trump is the guy who is into retaliatory measures. I don’t think that the company would probably be able to withstand a scorched earth retribution that Trump would visit upon them were they to ban him. So I think that for them, looking at the options that if they were to ban him, one, they may not longer be able to exist as a company because government agencies would be all over them, and they would become the lightning rod of Trump’s wrath because Twitter has been such a strategic tool for him.|
|Mark Karlin:||Two, that they’re getting a brand awareness around the world that they simply could not buy, no company could buy. I think those two factors are enough that they’re going to simply go along with the excuse that there is a newsworthiness in the President of the United States tweeting. We know from two recent court decisions where Trump has argued, that his lawyers have argued, or in fact the department of justice we’re paying for this as taxpayers, that they have argued on Trump’s behalf that he has the right to ban people. The courts, a federal appellate court last week upheld a federal circuit court decision that Trump does not because he isn’t on official capacity have the right to ban individuals. The Department of Justice says it’s going to pursue the case as far as it can go, perhaps to the Supreme Court.|
|Peter B. Collins:||The Appeals Court, Mark said, that he violated the first amendment rights of the critic when he blocked that person. It made it a one-way process, which the court found to be not in compliance with the first amendment. But Russ, let me turn to you because I think there is a compelling argument that many of Trump’s tweets are newsworthy. He tweets threats to foreign powers. He tweeted a decree to corporate America to get out of China. These don’t have the force of law, in my opinion. Also, the media feels, I think, that because he has 65 million readers, that they don’t want to be blindsided, and they don’t want their audiences to be out of the loop on whatever loopy thing Trump is promoting on a given day.|
|Russ Baker:||Well that’s right, and actually I think years from now we’re going to be seeing some analysis of what was happening in these days that we can’t quite see exactly. So for example, this is a man who has decided not to use the normal means of communicating with the people. He doesn’t have the press conferences. His press secretaries don’t have the regular press conferences anymore. He only gives speeches to people who are part of his base, basically. So he has isolated himself, and Twitter is really his main way of communicating. So as media, how would you cover him if you were not to do that? So this has become this dilemma, and I think it’s really quite brilliant on his part and his strategist’s part to come up with this. The other thing that I think is very interesting is that these tweets, just by the very nature of their fundamental outrageousness keep raising the bar.|
|Russ Baker:||I can tell you that one of the things we discuss at WhoWhatWhy is how do we cover Trump? It’s so hard because when you cover the things that his administration is doing, when you cover the impact that he has had, the reaction seems to be, “Yeah, well what do you expect from the guy”, or, “That doesn’t surprise me.” Of course, he made that infamous comment that he could go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t get in trouble. I think it’s really gotten to the point where these tweets and the outrageousness of it, it’s a kind of a vicious cycle to the point where you kind of everybody throws their hands up and says “Really, nothing matters anymore.”|
|Russ Baker:||I think his supporters, the ones I talk to, they say, “Yeah, we know he’s a creep, and a nut, and he does all these things, but we’re still supporting him for some other reasons. Nothing he says is going to phase us.” Then people of course on the other side have just gotten to the point where if you tell them anything particular, if you do any reporting, any investigation on anything they say, “Yeah, well, so what?” So this is really a rather remarkable state of affairs we find ourselves in. I don’t think anything like this has ever existed before, anything even remotely close. It’s sort of uncharted territory.|
|Peter B. Collins:||I want to turn to one of the – and this has to be put in context – one of the most egregious recent offensive tweets. It was the one on August 15th that was really aimed at Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and I’m going to quote it in its entirety. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed representative Omar and representative Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace.” Now, he engages in a true McCarthyite smear here to claim that he knows what is in their hearts, that they hate Israel and all Jewish people, and nothing can be said or done to change their minds. Now to me, this violates the standards of attacking individuals, threatening and harassing them.|
|Peter B. Collins:||He succeeded in persuading Israel to deny them entry, and there was of course some back and forth with Tlaib on that. Still, the bottom line is that this is a deeply offensive expression on his part, and there is no recourse. Certainly the women held a news conference, and they rejected his comments, but the 63 million people who saw Trump’s insults and hate speech, probably only a small portion of them are aware of anything that the women said in response. Mark, isn’t this a low point that deserves Twitter’s attention and some sort of public evaluation of whether or not it meets their standards?|
|Mark Karlin:||I think it’s one in many low points. In this case, I think it happens to have been strategic on Trump’s part. I think many of us discount him at our own cost as simply being sort of a farcical clown, but he has an intuitive sense of what he wants to accomplish. In that case, what he was doing was one, creating a fissure in the democratic party, and two, this kind of was a setup for last week when he attacked Jewish Democrats in the United States and said they were being disloyal. What he meant was they were being disloyal to Israel. I think that according again to Twitter, the summary of their rules says that Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation. Violence, harassment and other similar types of behavior, discourage people from expressing themselves, and ultimately diminish the value of global public conversation.|
|Mark Karlin:||Certainly Peter, the tweet you mentioned violates those terms of service. This is done repeatedly. I had mentioned, and we could go back two years, we would have piles and piles of these tweets, but the attack at large coming through as a very mild mannered guy was so vicious and so vitriolic, and I think at its core racist as I mentioned earlier. I think when he was talking with such derision when he was tweeting about the vermin infested Baltimore, he’s talking about the people who live there. In my mind, it’s what The New York Times likes to euphemistically call ‘racially tinged rhetoric’. I think Twitter is making a big mistake because one cannot simply say that the standards don’t apply to the President of the United States. If anything, they should be more stringent for the President of the United States who is supposed to be leading the country in a positive manner toward unity. Yet Twitter has abandoned all pretense of reining Trump in at all. I think that’s at great cost to the country.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Russ Baker, even if we pull back from the ugly comments, isn’t it a matter that Twitter could further burnish its brand by enforcing its standards even up to and including the President of the United States?|
|Russ Baker:||Oh, absolutely, and that’s why I was trying to make a real suggestion which was they could certainly punish him every time he violated the standards. I think it’d be tough to do an absolute ban of Trump, but they could probably have their cake and eat it too by announcing that certain things, that they’ve created this independent arbitration, and that certain things, so for example, the statement about those two congresswomen was in fact defamatory because as Mark said, he can’t know what they thought, and so he can’t say that. They [crosstalk 00:26:00]-|
|Peter B. Collins:||Elon Musk has been instructed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, this is the founder of Tesla and the Boring Company, and the other interests that he has, he has been told that he has to vet his tweets that could cause any movement in Tesla stock before he actually pushes send. So do we need adult supervision for Trump before he takes to Twitter?|
|Russ Baker:||Well, it’s interesting that we have those rules and regulations for the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism if you consider that to be Wall Street, but we don’t have it for the way in which someone like Trump can also affect the markets and everything else, which he’s doing as well. I mean, that would be another point would be to ask them about the comments that he makes, and how they affect shares, because they do. By the way, of course, the other thing he does, which I think is absolutely brilliant is he deliberately throws these things out right when we ought to be paying attention to something like the economy, and the media eats it up, and turns in that direction. So yeah, I think there ought to be a lot more pressure on Twitter to acknowledge the power and the impact on the role that it plays, and that it ought to start moving in the direction, at least step by step, to hold him accountable, absolutely.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Finally, gentlemen, I’d like you to address the development reported by The New York Times on August 25th. Inside the White House is a man I’d never heard of before, 47-year-old Arthur Schwartz, and he seems to be leading up an ad hoc team of people who are seeking retribution via Twitter. When a comment is posted that is critical of the President or his appointees, they are now pushing back. One first target has been an editor at the politics desk at The New York Times, called to account for a tweet that he posted while he was in college that was allegedly antisemitic and racist, and then someone who had been critical of the new Press Secretary at the White House, Stephanie Grisham, reporting facts about her past including three arrests for driving under the influence. That person was the target of counter tweets, again related to comments that were made over 10 years ago.|
|Peter B. Collins:||So we see a new type of Twitter warfare developing here. Aside from the mudslinging, it could be a moment that causes people to reevaluate Twitter and what standards are appropriate. Mark, what’s your reaction to this new development?|
|Mark Karlin:||I think it’s Roger Stone style dirty tricks. I think it’s deplorable, but I think we’ve learned that the President of the United States, Donald Trump, learned very well from right home that you attack, you deny, you deny, you deny, and then you attack. He never apologizes. He has said as much, and that his main defense is attacking. I think that this is more of the same. He has no scruple. He’s shown that. He has incited people who are on the edges it is of white supremacy into shooting massacres as we saw on El Paso and Gilroy California and elsewhere and Pittsburgh the synagogue.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Indeed.|
|Mark Karlin:||There’s simply no stopping him. So I think what Mr. Schwartz is doing is probably known, I can only speculate to Donald Trump because it’s completely consistent with this, the ruthlessness.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Russ, what’s your comment?|
|Russ Baker:||Yeah, I mean it’s clearly a scorched earth strategy. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. I think that Trump’s base look at situations like Kavanaugh and they say, “Well if what he did or didn’t do in college was fair game, and the country was going to be taken through that, we can do it too.” Journalists certainly, and speaking as a journalist, we are a little bit hypocritical because we can dish it out, but we can’t take it. So, I mean, I think this is why Trump succeeds to some extent is despite his incredible awfulness, hideousness on so many fronts as Mark put so well, and encouraging all sorts of atrocious and violent acts, there’s a kernel of something that is really a kind of a, I don’t know if you’d call it a culture war, but it’s a war over who has what standards that I think he’s tapping into.|
|Russ Baker:||Maybe out of all of this will come some better conversation about the standards that we all need to adhere to. I’m not trying to create any false equivalency here, but I do think that’s probably the way ahead is to accept some kind of standards that everybody’s got to accept. Is it fair game what people did a long time ago? Is it fair game to look into everything that they ever did or ever said, to acknowledge that Twitter is something that we use as a steam valve, maybe after having a couple of too many drinks? We’ve got to have a candid conversation about all of this because if we don’t, it’s just going to get worse and worse, and it is the way that we live today. Twitter is the way we live.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Russ, you’ve just suggested a whole new category of crime, TUI Tweeting Under the Influence. Well gentlemen, I want to thank you for a great conversation today, and I want to address our listeners and say if you feel moved by these arguments that Twitter should be enforcing its fuzzy and inconsistent standards of speech, then please tweet about this, retweet it, tweet at Jack Dorsey and let’s see if we can penetrate there. Of course, you never really can tell if you’re reaching somebody at Twitter. I once looked them up in the phone book, and the only phone line they have is for human resources. You cannot call Facebook or Twitter and actually register a complaint with a human being. So we have to use their platform to make noise about the way they manage their platform. Russ Baker from WhoWhatWhy, and Mark Karlin from BuzzFlash. Thanks for joining me today.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Thanks for listening to this lively conversation about Twitter. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. You want to tweet at me? I am @pbcsf. If you got some extra jingle in your pocket, send it our way here at WhoWhatWhy.|
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