President Donald Trump is not happy with Twitter, usually his favorite social media platform. On Tuesday night, he accused Twitter of “interfering” with the 2020 presidential election and “stifling free speech” by placing a fact-check label on two of his tweets.
It’s the first label Twitter has put on one of the president’s tweets, and the most aggressive action the company has taken after years of being hands-off about its most notorious user.
Many Twitter users had expressed consternation with the platform Tuesday for allowing Trump to tweet unfounded murder allegations against MSNBC host and former Congressman Joe Scarborough. But that was not the controversy Twitter moved to address.
Twitter’s unprecedented action came against two tweets about mail-in ballots, labeling them as misleading under a new initiative that started rolling out in February to combat misinformation. The labels link to a page curated either by Twitter’s own staff or “external trusted sources” with additional information about the content of the tweet.
“These tweets … contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots. This decision is in line with the approach we shared earlier this month,” a company spokesperson told Adweek. The spokesperson declined to comment further when asked about the president’s complaints.
Until now, Twitter has tried to avoid wading too much into politics, despite being the president’s communication tool of choice. The platform even went so far as to ban all political advertising (though, as brand marketers suggested at the time, such ads represented only a small part of its business).
Critics have long said Trump consistently violates Twitter’s community standards by promoting misinformation and tweeting hateful statements. Naturally, Trump didn’t take the platform’s fact-check well and continued his tirade Wednesday morning, tweeting a threat to “strongly regulate, or close” down social media platforms that “silence conservative voices.” He later boasted that he will take “big action” against Twitter.
However, Twitter is a private company and can do what it wants with speech on its platform. It can put any label on the president’s tweets or otherwise warn users that his words words may be misleading. It can even delete them.
“If there is a First Amendment issue here at all, it’s the issue of threatening the use of presidential authority to compel a private platform to speak or to refrain from speaking,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “Nobody has a ‘free speech right’ to insist on using a non-governmental platform to convey his message.”
Twitter can also ban users who may be in violation of its code of conduct, such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars, who was banned in 2018 after he livestreamed himself insulting a CNN reporter on Twitter-owned Periscope, and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who got the boot in 2016 for harassing actress Leslie Jones.
LoMonte said people should view Twitter for what it is: a publisher. “When a government agency refuses to let a speaker speak, we call that censorship and it’s a First Amendment problem. But when a private platform like Twitter refuses to let a speaker speak, we call that ‘editing,’” he told Adweek. “There’s no way that the publishing business could possibly work if we all had a right to demand that our letters run in The New York Times or in The New Yorker exactly the way we want them.”
Trump has run afoul of the First Amendment on Twitter
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has taken Trump to court over his own First Amendment abuses on Twitter—and won. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the president could not block his critics on Twitter because his account is considered to be a public forum created by the government, and therefore he can’t grant or deny access based on individuals’ viewpoints.