It was just before 1AM early Friday morning, and President Donald Trump was awake and tweeting. Responding to the looting and rioting that broke out in Minneapolis over George Floyd’s death in police custody there, Trump wrote that the U.S. military is with the state’s governor Tim Walz “all the way” and that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter decided the tweet “glorified violence” and violated its user policies, and appended a note saying so to Trump’s feed.
Trump was incensed.
The moment showcased Trump’s habitual instinct to press on the sorest spots of American public debate, and to use Twitter to do it. It also highlighted the tension between Trump’s reliance on the social media platform to broadcast his instant reaction to events and the challenge Twitter is facing when it comes to how far to let Trump’s speech go.
Twitter drew Trump’s ire earlier in the week when, for the first time, it began directing users to news sites fact-checking the President’s misleading assertions made on the platform about voting by mail. He demanded aides quickly write an order for him to sign that would revisit how much liability social media companies face for content posted on their site, a review that — ironically — could put pressure on companies to restrict more speech like Trump’s and not less.
Trump’s campaign and political rise have relied on social media platforms, but he’s also been a regular voice blasting social media companies for what he says is a bias against conservative speech. It’s a tension that’s playing out in real time as social media companies face public pressure to limit the spread of incendiary, hateful or false information online, including when it comes from the President.
Social media seems tailor-made for Trump’s instinctive talent to grab headlines, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “He understands what goes viral,” Zelizer says. “Each time he does this, he understands that even if it’s bad press, it’s press for him. It’s better than headlines about the pandemic and the death toll which fall on his shoulders.”
During Trump’s political ascent in 2016, the American public witnessed him use Twitter like few American politicians had before, venting grievances, insulting rivals and floating off-the cuff policy ideas. But except for President Trump’s own use, Trump’s campaign rolled back its reliance on Twitter after the 2016 election, campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement on Friday. “We have known for a long time that social media companies have it in for conservatives in general and President Trump specifically,” Parscale said. “There are various reasons we pulled our massive advertising spending from Twitter months ago, and their obvious political bias is one of them.”
When asked to elaborate on Parscale’s statement, a Trump campaign official said the Trump campaign pulled spending with Twitter in 2017 and spent no money advertising with the company in 2018. “After begging us, we told Twitter some things they’d have to do for us to test again, they did and we spent $6K in 2019,” the official said. The official did not say whether the campaign plans to make further adjustments to its Twitter strategy in light of the latest controversy.
Trump on Thursday said Twitter is making “editorial decisions” by pointing readers to fact checks of his tweets. “In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform, they become an editor with a viewpoint. I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook and perhaps others,” Trump said.
Indeed, some critics saw Trump’s executive order this week as a way to intimidate other social media companies going forward and make them think twice about limiting or fact-checking Trump’s messaging on their platforms. Facebook and other online platforms remain a significant part of the campaign’s strategy to amplify the President’s message, collect data to mobilize supporters and organize volunteers.
“His call to punish Twitter for its fact-checking of his blatantly false statements is akin to threatening to shut down a newspaper or a TV network for a report considered unfriendly,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a non-profit that advocates for freedom of speech. “He isn’t protecting free speech; he is chilling it.”
But even if his campaign says Twitter isn’t central to the President’s political strategy heading into November, old habits die hard. Facing a backlash that his early morning tweet was encouraging deadly force and echoed slogans linked to deadly police practices in the late-1960s, where did Trump go to clarify his statement? Twitter.
“Looting leads to shooting,” Trump tweeted, pointing to shootings in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky. “I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means.” A few minutes later, White House reporters were ready to ask President Trump in person what his tweets meant, but he didn’t take questions.
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson