The statement’s biggest flaw is evading the core insight that has prompted calls to ban world leaders from Twitter: the platform doesn’t merely help facilitate the public conversation about what world leaders say; it changes the substance of what they say by virtue of its unique, deliberately designed user interface and features.
Under the status quo, those features nudge world-leader tweeters in the same direction as all other Twitter users: toward seamless engagement on the platform, rather than deep, thoughtful deliberation before a thought is expressed.
President Trump illustrates how the constraints of the platform change what a leader expresses.
Most execrably, he retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos from a far-right politician in Europe. If Trump was not on Twitter, it is unlikely that he would’ve found the video, uploaded it to White House servers, and posted it to the web, spreading its reach and associating it with the United States government. More typical is his pattern of publicly reacting in real time to whatever it is that the cable-news show Fox & Friends broadcasts on a given morning, a concerning feedback loop persuasively documented in Politico by Matthew Gertz.
Those forays into live-tweeting TV do not translate to other mediums. Trump would express fewer destructive thoughts if he always communicated through other platforms and mediums due partly to their intrinsic features; he won’t be the last world leader for whom that holds true. Does Twitter contest that many of his irresponsible statements were made on their platform, or that they probably wouldn’t have been expressed on a different one?
As for the rest of the company’s statement, that a Twitter ban would not silence world leaders is a point in favor of such a ban. It is necessary for world leaders including Trump to communicate with citizens, but a ban would not hamper necessary discussion around the words and actions of world leaders. If heads of state weren’t on Twitter, their words and actions would still be posted to the platform and debated endlessly by its users. If a president posted a video or podcast, countless people would embed it on Twitter; if a German chancellor released a written statement, it would surely be posted on the site.
What first communicating via those other means would demand is an extra degree of premeditation and deliberation. They are less vulnerable to impulsiveness, thoughtlessness, and needless conflict than is Twitter. They’re arguably less vulnerable to hacking, too.
And even if Twitter is determined to keep world leaders on its platform, even if its arguments for doing so are correct, that isn’t the end of its potential responsibility.
In the 1995 essay “The Technologist’s Responsibilities and Social Change,” Mark Weisler set forth two principles for inventing socially dangerous technology:
- Build it as safe as you can, and build into it all the safeguards to personal values that you can imagine.
- Tell the world at large that you are doing something dangerous.