Whether social media have been good or bad for society is an open question. Whether social media have been good or bad for President Trump isn’t as difficult to discern. For even the most sober-minded and introspective figures, Twitter can serve as a dangerous temptation. For a man as capricious and mercurial as our 45th president, it is an irresistible invitation to say things unworthy of his office. It is said that President Lincoln would place letters written in anger into a locked drawer so that he could decide the next morning whether the opprobrium he had meted out was deserved. President Trump, by unhappy contrast, does not so much as wait to spell-check his missives.
This habit has now hit its nadir, with his ongoing series of disgraceful tweets insinuating that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough murdered a young woman working in one of his Florida offices when he was a congressman two decades ago.
As is often the case with this president, Trump’s follies have ignited a series of counter-follies that have made the situation even worse. In an attempt to mollify its critics without setting a precedent for expulsion that it may come eventually to regret, Twitter announced that it would begin to publicly “fact-check” statements that Trump has made on other topics, and thereby to take on a role to which it is in no way suited. In response, Trump rolled out another of his “l’internet, c’est moi” threats, promising to “strongly regulate” or “close down” any “Social Media Platforms that “silence conservatives voices.” Which, in turn, prompted Senator Josh Hawley to ask why Twitter enjoys a “special subsidy from the federal government while it censors @realDonaldTrump and also Americans who are critical of #ChineseCommunistParty?”
Not one of these courses of action is desirable. Twitter is a medium, not a message, and it should decline to inject itself into the middle of America’s political debates. President Trump cannot “close down” social media, and he should not idly threaten to do so. And, pace Senator Hawley, user-driven websites are not being “subsidized” by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects the “provider or user of an interactive computer service” from being treated as the “publisher” of opinions whether or not he has not reviewed them. It is Section 230, by way of example, that prevents Joe Scarborough from being able to sue Twitter when one its members engages in a libel. Section 230 has been maligned lately, but we have yet to see any proposal that would be likely to improve it.
Time was when the obvious response to reprehensible behavior was admonition. The root cause of the mess we are witnessing today is not Twitter’s bias or legislative favoritism, and it is most certainly not that the president lacks the power to suspend the First Amendment. Rather, it is that the president lacks the power to control his own urges. What needs changing is the behavior of the man who sits at the heart of all of our national conversations, both good and ill.