On the ethics of "the unfiltered message"
Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.
President Trump uses Twitter a lot, and a lot of Americans think he should stop (or at least use it differently). In a recent editorial, for example, Bloomberg View points out that “[s]eemingly everyone who knows Trump -- staffers, lawyers, friends, family -- has urged him to do so. Members of Congress have practically begged him. Voters, too, have had their fill.” At the end of June, Fox News reported the results of its poll on the subject: "Overall, only 13 percent approve of Trump’s tweeting. It was 16 percent in March. … Among Republicans, 21 percent approve, while 59 percent would like Trump to be more careful with his tweets and 18 percent disapprove."
The president has said that he will continue to tweet because the platform allows him to “get the honest and unfiltered message out.”
However, a number of the president’s tweets have targeted individual Americans. (One posted late last month, for example, called Representative Adam Schiff “sleazy”; others referred to particular journalists as “low IQ crazy” and “psycho.”) At the same time, Twitter has been publicizing its renewed effort to combat harassment on the site. “Donald Trump Is Testing Twitter’s Harassment Policy,” read a July headline in The Atlantic, and some commentators (and tens of thousands of people who have signed online petitions to this effect) have called on Twitter to suspend Trump’s account.
In a video interview with CNN Money, Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and current CEO of Twitter, was asked directly, “Is there any circumstance under which you’d suspend the President’s account?” “We want to make sure that we hold all of our accounts to the same terms of service,” he answered, “but ultimately we want to make sure that we’re guiding everyone toward better usage.”
(How, one wonders, is Twitter “guiding” president Trump toward better, “healthier ways”—as Dorsey also put it—of using the service? Would a temporary suspension of the president’s account in response to particular tweets, for example, be a reasonable part of such “guidance”?)
Dorsey also said that Trump is “having a real-time conversation with the world,” and added “I’m an optimist; I do believe this open exchange of information will have positive impact.”
Baked into that statement is the assumption that what is occurring is, in fact, a conversation. But president Trump does not appear to engage with other Twitter users (beyond re-tweeting some of them). He doesn’t respond to those who answer his tweets. He appears to be using Twitter more like an endless series of free billboards instantly stating his views. Given that, does the spread of such information still have, as Dorsey put it, “positive impact”?
A number of commentators have argued that Twitter should definitely not ban Trump, not because he is engaging in a useful conversation, but because his tweets provide the citizenry with a window into his real views and personality. Some have also argued that Trump has managed not to actually violate Twitter’s current anti-harassment rules, and that tightening the rules to prevent the kind of attacks that he has launched would chill too much speech when applied to everyone on the platform. In Mashable, journalist Adario Strange added that Trump’s “presence on Twitter allows us to engage in a public dialogue (even if Trump doesn't participate beyond the first tweet).”
In response to those points, one might argue, first, that the common good of the citizenry may indeed be best served by allowing Trump to continue to tweet his “unfiltered” views, but that that requires our acceptance of the fact that particular individuals who are targeted by him will continue to bear the burden for the rest of us. (“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” might spark a “The Ones Who Walk Away from Twitter” counterpart.)
One could also argue that it might make sense to impose more speech restraints on some users than on others, given the imbalance of power among those users. A threat made by a president of the United States, for example, might be experienced very differently by its target than a threat by some less powerful fellow Twitter user. Is it equitable, in fact, to hold all accounts to the same Terms of Service? Moreover, is it even accurate to say that Twitter currently does that? Many activists have complained that their accounts have been suspended for comments far less egregious than some of the president’s.
As to the claim that Trump’s presence on the platform “allows us to engage in a public dialogue” (even if Trump himself does not participate in it), could that dialogue not happen even in his absence? Arguably, the suspension of Trump’s account, even if temporary, and possibly repeated as needed, would itself surely generate a powerful public dialogue.
The recent Bloomberg View editorial considers the balance of benefits versus harms from an international perspective, too. The editors write that Trump’s tweets
have recklessly upended American policy from Qatar to China to North Korea. … They have unnerved financial markets, antagonized allies, emboldened dictators, abetted foreign intelligence agencies -- and all for what?
To “get the honest and unfiltered message out,” says Trump. And there is surely some benefit in the American people knowing what their president is thinking, even if in 140-character spurts. But that benefit needs to be balanced against the cost -- to public discourse, to political culture, to global stability -- of this president tweeting.
The power and peril of the president’s tweets present an ethical dilemma. As a responsible corporate citizen, what should Twitter do? As ethical users of the service, what should we ask of it?
Illustration by Pete Simon, cropped, used under a Creative Commons license.