Trump-free Twitter: Outage highlights service’s importance
President Donald Trump’s Twitter account disappeared for just 11 minutes this week, far shorter than past outages that have affected users of the social media service.
But as Trump’s critics cheered his brief moment of forced silence and Twitter struggled to explain who was responsible for deactivating his account, the outage underscored how important Twitter has been to his presidency — and how easy it is to pull the plug.
“My Twitter account was taken down for 11 minutes by a rogue employee,” Trump wrote from his restored account early Friday, making light of the brief Thursday evening disruption that vexed many of his 41 million followers. “I guess the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact.”
Twitter blamed a customer support worker on his or her last day on the job for deactivating Trump’s account on the way out. The San Francisco-based company added Friday that it is still investigating and has “implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again.”
The New York Times reported Friday, citing two unnamed sources, that it was an outside contractor, not a Twitter staff member, who made the account go dark.
Twitter wouldn’t say if it was a contractor and declined further explanation, raising questions not only about its own security measures but on Trump’s heavy reliance on a single platform to broadcast his views.
“It’s not surprising that even the brief shutdown of the president’s Twitter account has provoked debate,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Trump’s practice of blocking Twitter users who criticize him.
Twitter has been Trump’s primary means of communicating with the masses since even before he launched his presidential campaign. He has resisted pleas from family and friends to set aside his mobile device and to act more presidential. Trump says the service allows him to get his message out to supporters without the filter of the media, but it’s also allowed him to circumvent his own staff.
Twitter enables Trump to unveil himself, constantly, to the American people. “It provides agenda control,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Every reporter scrutinizes it. The framing capacity is extraordinarily high. He can switch the news agenda by tweeting something controversial.”
Trump’s Twitter missives frequently catch even senior aides off guard, such as when he ratcheted up the rhetoric on North Korea this summer.
Jaffer said that “love it or hate it, the account has become an important source of news and information about the government” and Trump’s tweets “often shed light on official decisions and policies — and even when they don’t, they shed light on the temperament, character, and motives of the person most responsible for them.”
Trump uses Instagram and Facebook sparingly, usually to amplify items he has already tweeted. He controls the @realdonaldtrump account on Twitter, while aides control the other accounts.
Twitter has struggled in recent months in how it enforces, and explains, its procedures for managing accounts that violate its code of conduct. While Twitter’s customer service workers cannot post on someone else’s account, they have the ability to suspend or remove accounts, or delete individual tweets, over violations.
The company, along with Facebook and Google, faced grilling from Congress this week over political abuse of their services, including Russian efforts to interfere in last year’s presidential elections. Twitter also faced outcry when it temporarily suspended actress Rose McGowan’s account while she was speaking out against Harvey Weinstein.
That’s why when Trump’s account went dark Thursday, some observers assumed it was a formal rebuke. His critics celebrated. Some suggested the lull was too brief.
“Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump’s Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes,” wrote U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who offered to buy the unidentified worker a Pizza Hut pizza.
Trump supporters warned of censorship.
Just days earlier, the company had shut down the personal account of a close Trump ally, Roger Stone, after a profanity-laced tirade insulting journalists. Stone responded by calling the company the “totalitarian corporate thought police.”
Twitter has said it won’t ban Trump, even though his critics say he has violated its rules against harassment and intimidation. Just an hour after musing about his temporary Twitter deactivation, Trump was again disparaging Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” because she has mentioned having American Indian heritage.
Free speech advocates have said that it’s better to keep Trump on the platform , and it should not be up to private companies to decide whether the president has a voice there.
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