Twitter’s Next Trump Problem

Trump is exempt from many of Twitter’s policies because of his status as a world leader. Come January, he could lose his favorite toy and most powerful weapon.

Donald Trump with blue squiggles covering his mouth.
Win McNamee / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The president’s bad tweets are the stuff of slideshows and masterposts. They’ve inspired memes and cultural catchphrases, and some are so artfully inane that they could even be called poetry: “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” Donald Trump tweeted, memorably, on Cinco de Mayo in 2016.

Others are scarier. There was the time he declared that a tweet could “serve as notification” that the United States would counter any military attack from Iran, “perhaps in a disproportionate manner.” There was the time he joined in on the wild speculation that the Clintons had ordered Jeffrey Epstein murdered. There were the Obama conspiracy theories, one after another, throughout Trump’s entire presidency and well before it. There was the grotesque promise that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump’s “worst tweet ever,” according to one Washington Post columnist, was the one he posted as he was leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after being treated for COVID-19 in October: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Now, just a few weeks later, he has outdone himself, with baseless claim after baseless claim that the election has been stolen from him. “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” he tweeted less than an hour before every major network would declare the opposite. “WE WILL WIN!” he tweeted four days later, undeterred.

Through it all, Twitter never banned Trump. It didn’t even suspend him. Instead, the company codified its reluctance to remove Trump into policy, writing out an exemption to its rules for “world leaders, candidates, and public officials.” Incitement to violence, hate speech, targeted harassment: Offenses that would get others removed from Twitter were acceptable from Trump and other politicians. “It would take something really deplorable for a ban, and I highly doubt even Trump is that stupid,” an anonymous Twitter employee told The Verge in 2017. (There are some rules that are so hard-line that even Trump isn’t exempt. That includes things such as doxing, promoting terrorism, and sharing revenge porn.)

This year, Twitter did start moderating the president—and misinformation in general—meaningfully for the first time. In the spring, when Trump spread blatant disinformation about the coronavirus, the company slapped warning labels on his tweets. (It also briefly suspended his son Donald Trump Jr. for sharing a video that claims hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19.) Throughout the summer and fall, President Trump’s lies about mail-in voting and election fraud have been appended with notes about the disputed claims and links to real information. Since November 4, the president has tweeted (or retweeted himself) more than 120 times. So far, about 40 of these tweets come with a warning label. (This is not counting the claims of election fraud he has retweeted from other people.)

Now he is two months away from losing exemption from Twitter’s rules—theoretically going back to the same treatment as anyone else. “[The world-leader] policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions,” a Twitter spokesperson confirmed in a statement. Twitter has spent the past year putting checks on the president’s speech, adding friction to the process by which conspiracy theories spread, and labeling false information for what it is. But it hasn’t yet gone nuclear. The company is in a bind: Banning Trump after he leaves office would be interpreted as an aggressive political act by much of the right. It might drive him and his followers to other, more insular parts of the internet, where delusions and lies would go unchecked by the mainstream. But allowing him to keep spreading dangerous misinformation would be hypocritical, and, frankly, bad for the company’s image.

So … will Twitter do it?

One way to predict whether Twitter will ban Trump would be to look at its track record with similar cases. In the past, Twitter has been extremely reluctant and somewhat vague about its decisions to outright ban famous people. It has been particularly hesitant to implement bans when they can appear to lend credence to the right’s pet narrative about being “censored” by Big Tech. When Twitter was waffling on banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, for example, CEO Jack Dorsey said the company had to hold Jones to “the same standard” as every other account, and resist “taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.” Jones eventually was banned, for “abusive behavior,” and Twitter did not provide details beyond stating that.

When I asked around among Trump’s allies about whether they suspect he’ll be banned once he leaves office, only the right-wing conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich responded. “Of course he will be,” he said, adding that he imagined the company would be counting down the days. The experts I spoke with were much less certain. “I think it’s quite possible,” James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Law School who has studied moderation, told me. “Twitter has all along said that the policy that has kept Trump on Twitter is an exception for leaders and political figures.” But then Grimmelmann walked it back, saying the platform might just continue labeling false claims with warnings, or start removing individual tweets. (The White House did not return a request for comment.)

I had been unconvinced that Trump would ever get banned from Twitter, mostly because many of Trump’s egregious tweets as president have been egregious specifically because he was president. You can’t actually get banned for calling someone a “dummy dope” or a “phony,” and it’s rare to see bans even for racist or sexist or ableist comments unless they contain actual slurs. Nor is it easy to get banned for obliquely offering up an enemy for coordinated harassment—by that standard, many pop stars would be long gone. Most of Trump’s everyday Twitter behavior is unseemly but not bannable, and his most offensive tweets were galling because they invoked presidential power—hinting at a nuclear arms race, suggesting that his military might violently suppress protest. That power goes away on January 20. But Grimmelmann, like all of the other experts I spoke with, believed that the Twitter policy Trump was most likely to violate is its rule against the incitement or glorification of violence. It would have to be a bright line, he said, and Twitter would need to be able to defend the enforcement by pointing to a clear policy. “I don’t expect them to fully explain their reasoning publicly,” he added. “They’ll share far fewer details than were part of the internal deliberation.” And after Dorsey’s irritation with how his staff handled a URL block on a New York Post story about Hunter Biden, Grimmelmann said the CEO would have to be the one to personally make the call. (Twitter declined to comment on this.)

Brian L. Ott, a communication professor at Missouri State University and a co-author of The Twitter Presidency, agreed that, were Trump to get banned, it would probably be for incitement to violence. “I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said. “He has demonstrated a willingness again and again to legitimate and stoke political violence.” He will do it again, Ott said, and he will eventually get booted from his favorite website. It’s only a matter of time.

Even free-speech advocates think calls for violence should keep Trump off Twitter. “[He] has certainly called into question a lot of preconceived notions about how you should treat the president’s speech,” says Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute—which successfully sued Trump in 2017, for blocking American citizens on Twitter. She agreed that incitement to violence or an immediate threat is the violation Trump would probably have to commit. “Those are the kinds of things that Twitter would feel most secure in banning someone for doing,” she told me. Twitter is a company, not a government, so it is not beholden to the First Amendment. But the company could use it as a guide in a delicate case, and speech that directly and immediately causes violence is a narrow exception to free-speech rights.

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.