The final speeches have been given, and the White House is all packed up. In just eight days, Barack and Michelle Obama will relinquish the @POTUS and @FLOTUS accounts on Twitter, and controversy-sparking president-elect Donald Trump will take control of what is essentially the most powerful, influential brand in the world.
His many public spats aside, it is impossible to deny that Trump has leveraged social media, and Twitter specifically, in a way that no other politician has previously achieved — and he has already indicated his intention to tweet major policy announcements rather than going through traditional communications channels.
However, research published on 10th January reveals that 64 per cent of Americans believe Donald Trump should delete his Twitter account when he assumes the presidency. This figure is based on a poll of the sentiments of 1,000 voters. While 49 per cent of Republicans believe Trump should keep his personal Twitter, respondents across all other demographics think he should shut it down.
“President-elect Trump gets points for strength and intelligence, but voters’ feelings about his personality traits, empathy, leadership and level-headedness, are headed south,” says Tim Malloy, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
The reference to “level-headedness” is telling. While Trump’s grasp of the immediacy of social earned him many admirers, he has also acquired a reputation for shooting from the hip and @-ing his critics in the early hours of the morning.
When Meryl Streep criticised Trump at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, Trump’s Twitter feed was watched closely as everybody knew this was where he would issue his first response. Just days later, when unverified allegations of collusion with Russia surfaced online, we waited with baited breath to see Trump’s 140 character rejoinder.
Is this, then, why so many Americans believe Trump should have his account confiscated? To prevent a brand crisis on an international scale? Or is it simply that they feel a commander-in-chief should have more important things to do with his time than indulge in Twitter-storms every time his name comes up?
A number of Trump’s critics have called for Twitter to suspend his account, claiming that either the content he posts constitutes abuse, or that he incites his millions of followers to enact revenge on his behalf in the form of online harassment.
According to Twitter’s hateful conduct policy, users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others on the basis of these categories.” Trump has said and done all kinds of problematic things IRL, but so far he’s been shrewd enough to largely toe the line of plausible deniability on Twitter.
Additionally, last month, Farhod Manjoo at the New York Times explained that while Twitter has the legal right to remove Trump, it would set a disturbing precedent: “As online services like Twitter become the world’s primary place for political dialogue, the rules they set up for policing political speech will have a wide-ranging impact — they could be used to ban not just billionaire presidents-elect, but also activists and dissidents across the globe.”
There is also an argument that having this unfiltered feed, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, is more useful to wider discourse than official statements written by committee. “The world would be much worse off if Trump were kicked off Twitter,” says Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s unlikely that Trump will hand over full control of his accounts to a social media team following his inauguration on 20th January. We may well have four years of him live-tweeting his presidency ahead of us. But what of the hordes of other users out there who continue to tweet racist, sexist and homophobic abuse in his name?
“I’d like to see Twitter be more open about their priorities, expectations and practises,” says Stuart Geiger, an ethnographer at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, who sees Twitter’s current approach to moderating abuse as “haphazard” but also admits that the company is in a “tricky position.”
Just a few days ago, Twitter suspended the account of self-proclaimed “pharma bro” and would-be pantomime villain Martin Shkreli after he embarked on a campaign of harassment against Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca. Duca had been the target of widespread doxxing and rape threats following the publication of her article ‘Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America’.
Shkreli’s suspension has been compared to that of Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from the platform after inciting racial hatred against comedian Leslie Jones. Both instances send an important message: namely, that no matter who is in power, perpetuating harassment, abuse and violence should and will still carry consequences.