Before 2017, a president taking to Twitter to taunt a nuclear power would’ve been unthinkable. But Tuesday, Donald Trump, whose bygone impulsiveness contributed to two failed marriages and the bankruptcies of numerous businesses, engaged in a geopolitical boasting contest with North Korea, sacrificing the benefits of considered diplomacy to satiate his impulsiveness and need for attention:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
This may be the most irresponsible tweet in history. Julian Sanchez articulated the best-case scenario: “The good news is, other countries won’t take talk like this too seriously because they understand Trump is a small man who blusters to make himself feel potent. That’s also the bad news; there’s nowhere left to go rhetorically when we need to signal that we’re serious.” Most likely, that’s the fallout.
But what if this needless social-media saber rattling escalates into war?
The Gimlet Media host P.J. Vogt asks a key question: “Imagine if you were the person who invented Twitter.” If I were that person, I would ban President Trump immediately.
And I would ban all other world leaders, too.
By now these truths are self-evident:
- Twitter was designed to lower barriers to communication and encourage impulsive, off-the-cuff comments—and at that the platform has been wildly successful.
- Twitter routinely stokes needless conflict.
- Countless people who use Twitter routinely publish words that are ill-considered.
Those attributes make the platform ill-suited for communication by world leaders.
For most of us, the consequences of an ill-considered tweet are relatively small. The benefits of the communicative mode arguably outweighs its costs. The philosophy, “We believe that everyone should have the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers,” seems eminently defensible.
But heads of state should not share “instantly.” The weightiness of their pronouncements should be a barrier that causes them to pause before every pronouncement, for their words can carry immediate consequences, and can conceivably affect billions. Some leaders have triggered genocides and pogroms with their words. The wrong words about nuclear war could literally end human civilization.
Having global leaders tweeting gives humanity nothing commensurate with the risks we bear so that the powerful can communicate this way.
Trump says he needs Twitter to reach his voters. But that is nonsense. Most of Trump’s supporters are not even on Twitter. And any world leader, including Trump, can go on television or the radio as they see fit. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both felt the media disliked them and treated them unfairly. Neither had any problem reaching the masses whenever they wished. Trump simply enjoys being impulsive—but love or hate him, we should want him (and all others who control nukes) to speak with the most extraordinary care and deliberation.
And yes, Trump falls short of what many would hope for in a leader in his TV appearances, radio spots, Facebook posts, and rallies. But it takes a singularly clueless person to miss the fact that Twitter is where he is most erratic, juvenile, unpredictable, and unstable, by a wide margin, in part because of features built into its architecture.
Trump may be the worst offender today; but others as bad are sure to follow.
Banning world leaders from the platform might be a loss for them, but it would be a clear win for humanity: minuscule costs with conceivably civilization-saving benefits.
Finally, in Trump’s case, there is an absurdity to allowing him to continue tweeting. The platform is now banning people with a few thousand followers to prevent the harm of online harassment—yet it abides a president taunting an erratic totalitarian with an arsenal that could kill millions in minutes if a war were to break out? “You may not make specific threats of violence,” Twitter’s rules state. Mutually assured destruction may well be a necessary evil in our world; communicating it to hostile regimes in a careful, deliberate, responsible manner is part of being president of the United States as most Americans conceive of it; but Twitter is surely within its rights to declare that its platform is neither the time nor the place for such communications––which surely constitute a threat of violence––given the strengths, weaknesses, and limits baked into what it has designed.
A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that just 26 percent of respondents think the president’s use of Twitter is appropriate, while 59 percent said it was inappropriate.
Twitter should give the people what they want, and ban the most elite of the political elites once and for all. Or if it won’t, it must at least tell the public, in advance of future catastrophe: Would it let a president tweet literally anything? If not, where is the line?
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