Can a president be suspended from Twitter for threatening to attack another country?
That’s what some Twitter users, including actor and former Barack Obama aide Kal Penn, are demanding, after President Trump tweeted Friday morning that U.S. “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”
Critics of the president’s tweet say the rhetoric reflects a threat of violence against North Korea that violates Twitter’s rules and terms of service.
It is still unclear whether Twitter intends to act on requests for Trump’s account to be suspended. Twitter declined to comment on the matter, citing a company policy not to discuss individual accounts “for privacy and security reasons.”
Nor, for that matter, is it clear that Trump’s tweets actually constitute a terms-of-service violation. While Trump does appear to be sending a clear warning to North Korea, the stakes aren’t limited to a legalistic reading of Twitter’s policies. The company may need to balance Trump’s tweets against its own commitment to free expression and also weigh the public interest value of Trump’s unfiltered musings. If Ukraine and Russia can be said to engage in public diplomacy on Twitter when they battle each other with memes, then it could also arguably be a form of diplomacy for Trump to seek to deter North Korea with tweets, alarming as those tweets may be.
Underlying all that, of course, is also Twitter’s commercial need for engagement with its platform — an ever-growing requirement for its business at a time when our collective attention has never been more fragmented.
This isn’t the first time people have accused Trump of violating Twitter’s rules. Last month, for instance, he was criticized for tweeting a modified video clip of himself beating someone up outside a wrestling ring. The victim’s face had been obscured by CNN’s logo — leaving viewers with the impression that Trump was, literally, beating up CNN.
“If that’s not a direct threat of violence against the American citizens who work for CNN, it’s certainly a celebration of violence,” wrote the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance at the time.