There’s a lot going on right now – a global pandemic, an economic recession, millions of jobless people, riots about the police killing a black man in Minnesota. And yet the president is confused about a label that Twitter put on two of his tweets.
President Donald Trump, who has been pushing a conspiracy theory online about a former TV presenter employee he dislikes, has become furious after Twitter first added a fact-check label to two of his tweets that shared misleading information.
In the tweets in question, which Trump posted on Tuesday, he claimed without evidence that there is “no way” that mail-in ballots will be “anything but substantially fraudulent”, notably emphasizing the vote by mail plans from California . Twitter has added a label to Trump’s tweets, encouraging users “Get the facts” on ballot papers and point them to more information. (Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary has the full rundown of the fact-checking drama.)
And then all hell broke loose.
The president accused Twitter of interfering in the 2020 presidential election and suppressing free speech. He has continued to rage against the company ever since, and now threatens to “ strongly regulate ” or close social media companies. He drew one executive order on Thursday that will try to allow regulators to go behind Facebook, Google and Twitter for how they interact with content posted on their platforms. He and other Republicans specifically target Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which acts as a shield and sword for Internet platforms. They are generally not liable for the content posted on their platforms (the shield), and they can control their platforms as they please (the sword). Now Mark Zuckerberg weighs in. That’s how it is Sen. Josh Hawley. And a lot of other people.
Here’s the thing: Republicans have long been complaining about alleged social media prejudices against conservatives. Last year, Trump hosted a fake social media summit in the White House, refusing to invite the major social media companies. And Hawley – sometimes serious, sometimes not – has had an eye for Big Tech for quite some time.
But is it really time, given, you know, everything?
100,000 coronavirus deaths and a “Stay Tuned” on Twitter
Wednesday night, the official coronavirus count in the United States surpassed 100,000 people. And yet Trump fired on Wednesday and Thursday multiple tweets about his feud with Twitter and his upcoming executive order before acknowledging the dead. When asked about the timing of Trump’s tweets at a news conference on Thursday afternoon, White House secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president had lowered the flags to half staff the day before.
It seems that the president’s attention is very much focused on Twitter right now, a label on a tweet, and whether or not he can lie unpunished on social media, which he freely did until Twitter’s action this week. It’s also important to note that Twitter’s move was a minor one. It hasn’t removed his tweets. It has not deleted his account. And it’s hard to imagine Twitter ever taking such a step, as the policy specifically allows exceptions to messages from world leaders, who are considered “ newsworthy. ”
Trump is lying a lot, so you can see why it would be annoying for him to be able to mark a platform when he does it – especially months prior to an election. This fits in with a clearly formulated story and campaign plan that he has been pursuing for some time to distract the press and the public from more pressing issues, and to create a political bogey in technology companies. And the President is trying to politicize everything, including a public health emergency, which will ultimately affect the way social media companies address the issue.
But of all the things he needs to focus on now, it’s hard to justify why a fact check on Twitter should be the top priority.
As Vox’s German Lopez has pointed out, the Trump administration wasted weeks and even months of precious time at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis as it spread abroad and to the US. It lagged at key moments in other countries in terms of testing, contact tracing and healthcare capacity. And the delays, not only at the federal level but across the country, led to one an estimated 36,000 more lives were lost than if the government had acted before, according to Columbia University.
The president has remained true to his form and has often congratulated himself on his coronavirus response. Earlier this week, he estimated that if he hadn’t done his job well, more than a million people would have died. And for any shortcomings, he tends to blame others – China, the states, etc.
Although the situation in the US has modestly improved, the coronavirus crisis is not over yet. Scientists are still looking for treatments and vaccines, and it’s unclear whether reopenings will revive the disease or whether we will see cases emerge again in the fall. And there is also the economic aspect of the crisis: millions of people have lost their jobs; companies are closed, some permanently; and there is a lot of uncertainty about what awaits us.
The White House’s priorities seem more than skewed
It was difficult to analyze the logic of the White House as to what is urgent in all of this and what is not. Twitter label? Code red. State economies go under? Their own fault, especially if they are blue states. Another stimulus? Um, let’s wait and see. Trump seems eager to take the victory lap over the coronavirus, even though testing is only now getting underway and a vaccine is months and even years away. The Department of Defense announced on Thursday that it has done so signed a contract to increase domestic production of N-95 fan filters and respirators – but not until August.
There is no way to get inside the head of the president and clearly identify his motivations for this, but it is reasonable to make an informed judgment, given his behavioral patterns and personality. Of course he probably suffers from Twitter. He also knows that this is a way to distract from more serious problems and is well aware that this is a way to boost his base and generate anger to advance his campaign. This is an easy button to press Trump, and a button he previously pressed – there was a similar metabolism to a White House social media bias in August 2019.
But this is not only a distraction to the media or the public, it is also a distraction to Trump. And the president has already admitted that previous distractions hindered his coronavirus response. In March, he said he was “probably” sidetracked due to deposition earlier this year when the virus spread. Now worried about the fact check on Twitter, the president is back on the sidelines. It is a pivotal moment for the country and he is focusing his right to be on one specific online platform. After all, as Mark Zuckerberg has made clear, Facebook has no problem with it. Trump wants to win reelection in November, and that is his focus now. Twitter is a tool for that.