Commentary: Taming the tweeter in chief

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Washington Post

President Donald Trump on Thursday convened a “summit” on social media at the White House, where right-wing provocateurs (and not a single significant internet firm) gathered to decry what they perceive as top companies’ systematic censorship of conservative viewpoints. Days earlier, a federal appeals court ruled that Trump’s proclivity for blocking his critics on Twitter amounts to …. unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

The court decision denying Trump the ability to shut out people whose opinions offend him is a victory for openness and expression. Trump treats his account like a government channel, announcing policies from firings and hirings to a ban on transgender troops to, only last week, his administration’s intention to pursue putting a citizenship question on the decennial census.

His own employees have pronounced the account a source of official proclamations, and its interactive features — users can view, retweet and reply to his tweets and the attached comments — constitute a forum that is generally open to the population at large. Trump chooses to exclude people from that forum solely on the basis of what they believe.

The ruling is likely to have implications for holders of office less high than the commander in chief’s. Already, lawsuits have been filed against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and another appeals court earlier this year prevented a Virginia politician from kicking commenters off her Facebook page.

The outcome in each case should depend primarily on whether an account can be reasonably understood to be professional or personal, private or public, based on how it is used and who uses it. But there are other questions worth asking, such as whether officials can act against categories of speech such as violent threats or otherwise limit who participates in an online space.

Meanwhile, even as Trump tries to shut out those who take issue with his tweets, he persists in his crusade against social media sites in the name of free speech. “We have terrible bias. We have censorship like nobody has any understanding,” Trump said in a tirade against the tech companies after Thursday’s meeting.

Claims that Silicon Valley’s liberal leaders program their platforms to hurt the right and help the left are not supported by the evidence; in fact, the data show that conservative media has an easier time making stories go viral. The president’s philosophy toward the web, it seems, amounts to little more than this: People who agree with him should be allowed to speak, while those who disagree do not deserve a hearing.

Thursday’s summit was described as an effort to confront “the opportunities and challenges” of the internet. That’s a worthwhile topic, just as it is worthwhile for Congress and the executive branch to scrutinize companies’ policies on disinformation, privacy and more. But the president’s focus on personal gripes rather than policy problems threatens good-faith efforts to grapple with an industry that lawmakers have too long ignored.