What does social media owe society?
And for that matter, what does the presidency?
Those questions turned profound for President Donald Trump and Twitter this week in two seemingly separate, but ultimately interrelated events.
The first was the president pressing a proven lie, insinuating that Joe Scarborough, a former conservative congressman who’s now a consistent critic of Trump and Republicans on MSNBC, was involved in the death of Lori Klausutis, a former staffer in Scarborough’s Florida office.
Never mind that police determined that Klausutis’s undiagnosed heart condition caused her to fall and hit her head on a desk, which killed her. And that Scarborough was in Washington casting congressional votes at the time, and had already announced his retirement as a representative.
The details, and decency, didn’t stop the president, amid the deadliest pandemic in a century and the most dire economy since the Great Depression, from tweeting: “When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so. Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly? Isn’t it obvious? What’s happening now? A total nut job!”
The 3:54 a.m. tweet about the “Morning Joe” host was followed by four more morning missives this week about the nonexistent Scarborough scandal.
The former Florida congressman can take — and throw — a punch, even one from the president all but alleging murder. But most don’t care to climb into the ring of America’s caustic politics, including Klausutis’ widower, Timothy, who wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The letter, obtained by the New York Times, includes this plaintive plea: “My request is simple: Please delete these tweets.”
Klausutis continued by explaining that he had reviewed Twitter’s rules and terms of service and that Trump violates them. “An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed. ... I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong him — the memory of my dead wife and perverted it for perceived political gain.”
Klausutis concluded by writing: “My wife deserves better.”
So does America, as Scarborough wrote in the Washington Post.
Scarborough wasn’t the only one weighing in on Twitter’s CEO and the chief executive of the United States. Searing editorials included assessment of Trump’s tweets that said, “Trust us, you did not look like the bigger man.” Or that the accusation was “ugly even for him” and that Trump is “debasing his office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.” Or, stated starkly, “Vile.”
These scathing assessments didn’t come from what Trump slanders as the “fake news” media, but from Editorial Boards that usually kowtow, if not cower, to Trump: The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as the Washington Examiner, suggesting that even those outlets have limits.
Twitter doesn’t seem to, however. In a weakly worded statement it said: “We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family. We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”
Such mush may have protected the president and Twitter, but left undefended the Klausutis family and the broader family of Americans yearning for some semblance of social responsibility from social media sites.
Perhaps in response to Twitter’s relative nonresponse on the issue, Dorsey pivoted to two of Trump’s tweets on voting by mail by stamping a fact-check label “! Get the facts about mail-in ballots” that included a link to more information.
On Friday morning Twitter went one step further, affixing a warning label to a Trump tweet about protests against the killing of George Floyd that included the line “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The initial fact-checks immediately drew the president’ eye, and ire. Trump tweeted that, “@Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and ended claiming that the site “is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”
While the Scarborough screeds show that Twitter is doing the opposite, despite its terms of service, Trump followed up with an executive order on Thursday that takes aim at the liability protections social media sites rely on to allow a relatively free and unfettered virtual public square.
The protection provision is under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which considers Twitter, Facebook and other such sites platforms instead of publishers, thus shielding them from countless content lawsuits.
“I can’t speak for Twitter’s CEO, but without Section 230 I’d have to look really hard at whether my business model is a viable one if I were going to have to be dealing with defensive lawsuits,” said Jane Kirtley, the director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications. “That just changes the shape of their world if they’re subject to that kind of liability, even if they ultimately prevail.”
It may also change the shape of the president’s world.
“President Trump, who built his career on the power of a flame-throwing Twitter account, has now gone to war with Twitter, angered that it would presume to fact-check his messages,” a New York Times news analysis read. But “without a liability shield, they presumably would have to be more aggressive about policing messages that press the boundaries — like the president’s.”
The executive order seems headed for litigation and legislation, considering congressional Republicans general assent with the president. But there’s a more direct mitigation method: the truth.
Indeed, society is owed more probity from the president and Twitter, as well as other social media sites.
Dorsey’s deflection and the incumbent’s invective show that they’ve made their decisions. On Nov. 3, voters will make theirs, regardless if it’s at the ballot box or mailbox.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.