Tweeting Trump: How much power do 140 characters have?

It’s official: following the election @realDonaldTrump has gone from 140 characters to 280, now with the addition of the official Presidential Twitter account. The newly minted POTUS has expressed his desire to maintain both his personal and presidential accounts.

For years Twitter has faced reproach for being unable to address the torrent of racist, sexist, anti-semitic, and misogynistic vitriol unleashed by some of its users. In recent months, Twitter has attempted to crack down on abusive and threatening behaviour. The micro-blogging platform has stated unequivocally that its rules “apply to all accounts”. That users “may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others”.

While Trump’s tweets are rarely direct attacks or calls for his followers to harass other users, his commentary often leads to such behaviour. On 8 December, 2016 President Trump tweeted: “Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!” Soon after it was posted, Mr Jones received multiple calls including one that said: “We’re coming for you”.

“When you attack a man for living an ordinary life in an ordinary job, it is bullying,” said Nicolle Wallace, who was communications director for President George W Bush and a top strategist to other Republicans: “This is a strategy to bully somebody who dissents.”

“Anybody who goes on air or goes public and calls out the President has to then live in fear that he is going to seek retribution in the public sphere,” Mr Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said: “That could discourage people from speaking out.”

But the corollaries of this unchecked freedom of speech reach much further. From Carrier to Toyota, Trump has made it clear that he intends to use public browbeating to keep jobs in the US. Even companies in foreign countries that do a lot of business in the US may be forced to make compromises. Any corporation prominent enough to attract the President’s attention will have to tailor its strategic decisions to keep him happy. This could mean that companies unable to bring production back into the US could be forced to downsize, costing instead of creating jobs. Investors may begin to feel paralysed, unsure of which businesses might incite presidential ire next. Good policy is based on a predictable system of laws and rules, not random threats dictated by mood.

So why shouldn’t a harrying tyrant with the capacity to upset markets, destabilise corporations and harass individuals not be banned from Twitter? Because it is the most efficient warning system we have.

“The world would be much worse off if Trump were kicked off of Twitter,” said Ben Wizner, a free speech expert at the American Civil Liberties Union: “…We’re all learning very important things about Trump from the way that he behaves through this unfiltered medium, so our discourse and democracy would not benefit from removing that outlet for Trump, so that the only version of him we saw was one that was approved by his handlers.”

Say what you will, and there is certainly plenty to say, but never before have we had such up-to-the-minute access to the thoughts, feelings and personal opinions of a US president. At least we’ll know when to take cover.

Image: Gage Skidmore

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