Is Kamala Harris Right That Twitter Should Ban Trump?

The man who could make it all happen. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ben: Today, Senator Kamala Harris wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey requesting that he ban President Trump from the platform, citing his efforts to “target, harass, and attempt to out the whistle-blower” who has lodged a complaint against him, and his suggestion that his removal from the presidency will lead to a civil war, among other things. Regardless of the political wisdom of this idea — Harris is struggling mightily in the polls and this seems like a bid for some attention — does it make any sense to you?

Max: I mean, sure, it makes sense. She’s right; he’s pretty obviously in violation of Twitter policy and has been for years.

Ben: Yeah, this is a frequent complaint lodged by a lot of people. But is it actually a good idea?

Max: Ha. For whom?

Ben: Society?

Brian: My attitude about Trump’s use of Twitter mirrors a lot of how I think about stuff like deepfakes: Whether it’s effective is based on whether it’s amplified by other important people/outlets. So would people stop repeating the president’s wild rants if he had to do it on, I dunno, Facebook? Probably not.

Ben: I think there’s a difference here: He’s the president, so anything he says is newsworthy, unfortunately — unlike a deepfake, which could just go unremarked upon.

Brian: Right. I guess that’s my point. Shutting down the account wouldn’t dull any tensions. Would I love to see it happen? Sure. But I can’t imagine it would have a calming effect.

Max: Yeah, I think I agree with Feldman to the extent that “banning Trump from Twitter” seems like a poor stand-in for some more consequential response. I don’t really think Trump derives as much power from Twitter as I think the call to ban him supposes.

I think society might be marginally better off if he were banned, but, as Feldman is saying, Twitter is just one component of a media ecosystem that has been pretty effectively and thoroughly bent around Trump.

Brian: I think there is a slight belief that if we knock out Trump’s Twitter account, he’ll be crippled somehow. It’s a very naïve, “out of sight out of mind” mentality. He’ll just call into Fox & Friends or call a friendly reporter on background. He’s got plenty of allies willing to amplify his message if he can’t do it himself. Again, I’d love to see tech companies that claim to care about toxicity and stuff put their money where their mouth is, but in the case of the president, it feels pretty pointless.

Ben: Okay, so narrowing the scope of the argument a bit: If it won’t make a difference in terms of what the president puts out, does Twitter not have a responsibility to enforce its rules? I think many would cheer banning Trump, not because it will actually turn down the volume of his awfulness but because it would send a message that his conduct is not fit for a prominent communications platform.

Max: I think Twitter has a responsibility to enforce its rules, yeah. But Twitter also has the ability to change it rules in whatever ways it sees fit. The “rules” thing is what Kendra Albert calls a “legal talisman” — we like to talk about the “rules” of platforms as though they take the same shape as laws in the context of a government or a state.

It’s not like Twitter is great at cleanup now. It doesn’t really feel hypocritical that the prez remains when, like, heinous accounts remain all over. He’s not an outlier is all I mean, maybe in stature but not behavior.

Ben: Yes, they’re famously bad at this.

Breaking news: Elizabeth Warren was asked about this very question just now, per this tweet:

REPORTER: “Should Donald Trump be banned from Twitter?”

ELIZABETH WARREN: [laughs] “No.”

Max: I think Warren has the right idea. It’s hard for me to gin up much anger at Twitter over this specific thing. “Twitter inconsistently applies its own company policy” seems relatively minor in the scheme of problems in how “the media” — as a kind of overall ecosystem — deals with Trump. And I think trying to isolate Twitter, its relationship to Trump’s personal account, and its deployment of its policies … I don’t know, it seems kind of narrow-minded at best. Sorry, I know “eh, shrug” is not the kind of invigorating intellectual debate we might want, but I think it’s the one we deserve.

Brian: Once Congress makes it so that Twitter poll results are legally binding contracts, then it’s time to worry.

Ben: Presumably you don’t think there’s a chance Twitter would ever follow through on this? What if he specifically directed people to go after, say, Adam Schiff? This hardly seems out of the realm of possibility.

Brian: They’re both public figures — they live for drama. Remember when that support guy deactivated the account for like 11 minutes? That was so funny. So I guess now I support it because it’d be a good troll.

Max: I guess the problem I have with that hypothetical is, like (I’m thinking out loud here, don’t hold me to this), do we really think Schiff would suddenly be in more danger than normal if Trump tweeted, I don’t know, “Get Adam Schiff”?

Ben: Yeah, I do.

Max: Maybe I am underrating the power of DJT or the power of Twitter, or maybe I’m just a callous old troll. But my general feeling about the threat that Trump poses is that it’s generalized and diffuse and occurs along a bunch of different vectors.

And that the kind of hypothetical, like, “Well, what if he incited violence in a tweet?” question sort of misses the forest for the trees. I’m just interrogating my own instinctive response.

Ben: I see your point — it’s just that the violation in this case would be SO blatant I think Twitter might have to do something. It’s kind of like impeachment: There was enough there before this Ukraine thing, but this was just so comically corrupt that inaction was not an option.

Max: Yeah, impeachment a good comparison, Ben. I guess where the analogy continues for me is in the way that, by rights, he should have been banned years ago! So it’s hard to take any sort of “judicial process” around it seriously.

Ben: So let’s just not try.

Max: Haha. Well, okay, if we’re talking about impeachment and Twitter, maybe I’d say: To me, there aren’t several specific crimes here that mean he should or should not be impeached or banned. There’s one big overall problem, which is that he’s manifestly corrupt and unfit for office. Actually, I take it back. Maybe this doesn’t get us anywhere. Sorry, it’s turning out I have less of an opinion about this than I actually even thought. I guess I do sort of think he should be banned, but I truly can’t bring myself to care enough to make a strong case for it!

Ben: This is the kind of strong conviction people look for when they turn to Intelligencer.

Max: I think more than anything it just speaks to how badly Harris must be doing that she’s picking this up as her issue.

Ben: Yes.

Brian: In the face of a zillion important anti-Trump causes, his use of Twitter does not rank highly even for me, an idiot who has to think about Twitter too much.

Is Kamala Harris Right That Twitter Should Ban Trump?