Last night President-elect Donald Trump used his Twitter account to criticize Chuck Jones, an Indiana union organizer who has been sharply critical of Trump’s recent Carrier deal to keep jobs from moving to Mexico. Jones suggested the deal didn't save as many jobs as Trump had promised and said the President-elect “lied his ass off.” And so Trump lashed out publicly, lambasting Jones before an audience of some 17 million-plus Twitter followers:
Jones’ phone began to ring almost immediately with a flood of threats, according to a report from the Washington Post.
While Trump frequently air grievances on Twitter, his decision to single out a lone citizen with a public denouncement raises questions about whether such behavior might run afoul of Twitter's gauzy rules for conduct and its prohibitions against harassment and incitement.
It's tricky and unprecedented territory for Twitter. Trump is obviously free to mention individuals by name on Twitter, especially as they relate to policy and governing. However, Trump's new role as the most powerful leader in the free world as well as, his extreme visibility, and the history of his followers targeting and harassing his enemies create potential fallout that stands to affect real people, regardless of the intent with which they are made. Simply put: as President, the potential consequences of Trump's speech make his case — and Twitter's potential enforcement — somewhat unique.
For some context, it's worth noting how Twitter handled noted troll and Breitbart tech writer, Milo Yiannopoulos, who Twitter permanently suspended from the service last July. In Yiannopoulos’ instance, Twitter suggested the decision to suspend stemmed from Yiannopoulos using his account to incite his followers to harass targets and that the ban was the result of actions and not speech. “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” a company spokesperson said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News after Yiannopoulos’ suspension. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”
Trump, for his part, appears to know the power of his account and the vitriol of some of his followers. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly wrote in a recent memoir that Trump called her in 2015 after a segment on her show he didn't like and threatened her with his legion of followers. “I almost unleashed my beautiful Twitter account on you, and I still may,” Kelly quoted Trump as saying in her book. Trump did eventually use his account to criticize Kelly which resulted in death threats, stalkers, and a torrent of harassment on and off Twitter.
"What people don't realize about Donald Trump — and I don't even know if Donald Trump realizes it — is that every tweet he unleashes against you...creates such a crescendo of anger," Kelly said yesterday in an NPR interview.
Behavior of this sort is explicitly against Twitter’s rules, which state that "you may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others" and defines abusive incitement as:
If a primary purpose of the reported account is to harass or send abusive messages to others;
If the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats;
If the reported account is inciting others to harass another account; and
If the reported account is sending harassing messages to an account from multiple accounts.
But while Twitter's rules are explicit, the company's interpretation and enforcement of those rules is far more opaque. Last month, when Twitter suspended a number of prominent accounts associated with the so-called alt-right movement, the company drew the ire of free speech advocates for shutting down the account of white nationalist think-tank leader, Richard Spencer. The company did not comment on any of the individual suspended accounts and did not provide any examples of Spencer violating rules (which led critics of the ban to suggest he had not), instead issuing a statement: "The Twitter Rules prohibit targeted abuse and harassment, and we will suspend accounts that violate this policy."
In the Trump/Jones instance, murky waters are made even murkier by the fact that Jones’ position as a union leader, who has made media appearances, arguably elevates him to the level of a public figure. Similarly, another potential loophole for Twitter not to take action could be that Trump didn't target Jones' account — he mentioned him only by name. Still, the company is in a tricky position. Last week, Twitter told Slate that it would consider banning key government officials and that “the Twitter Rules apply to all accounts, including verified accounts.”
Twitter declined BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
Trump, for his part, continues to be a vocal supporter of Twitter. Yesterday on the TODAY show, Trump praised the service as "a modern-day form of communication" that affords him to operate "much faster than a press release” and “much more honestly than dealing with dishonest reporters.”
Just hours before Trump's comments, at a Recode event, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey was asked what Twitter thought about the President-elect's use of the service. Dorsey's response: "complicated."
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.