On Monday morning, the first day of the new year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had just returned from a 10-day silent meditation retreat. On Tuesday, President Trump took to Twitter to engage in some nuclear saber-rattling. By Tuesday night, Dorsey's centered silence had been replaced by the cries of protesters accusing him and his company of being "#complicit" in a potential nuclear holocaust.
Welcome to 2018, Jack!
Trump is often described as erratic and unpredictable, but his habit of tweeting provocations at Kim Jong Un and other heads of state is established enough that Twitter has had plenty of practice responding to it. After he posted what may go down in history books as the Nuclear Button Tweet, there came the usual demands that the platform suspend Trump's account because Twitter's rules prohibit "specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people."
Those who reported the tweet as abusive received prompt replies from the Twitter Support saying no violation had occurred. Reporters who sought clarification were made to understand that "my Button works" didn't constitute a sufficiently specific threat, and that the company's past presumption that presidential tweets are newsworthy enough to merit the benefit of the doubt also figured in.
You know what would be even more newsworthy than a threat of nuclear war? An actual nuclear war.
But in addressing what he called "The Most Irresponsible Tweet in History," the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf offered Twitter a way out of the cage it has built for itself: Prohibit all heads of state from using the service.
"Having global leaders tweeting gives humanity nothing commensurate with the risks we bear so that the powerful can communicate this way," he wrote. Barring not just Trump but also his sometime antagonists, like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau, would mitigate the appearance that the company was acting out of liberal political bias.
It's easy enough to find flaws in this approach. Who's the national leader in a country like England, which has both a monarch and a prime minister? Would the president's spokesperson be allowed to tweet on his behalf? If Trump were to disappear from Twitter, foreign intelligence services would surely start attaching greater import to the tweets of surrogates like Donald Trump Jr. That's not automatically a good thing.
But an approach doesn't have to be perfect to be worth implementing. Frankly, if Twitter wanted to adopt a "no world leaders" rule now and then quietly drop it in three or seven years' time, that would be perfectly consistent with the company's history when it comes to safety and abuse, which is one of inconsistency.
Why does Twitter have any rules at all? Terrorist propaganda and death threats and racist slurs--it's all just pixels, right? Of course, the answer is all of these things can cause harm in the real world. But nowhere near as much harm as a taunt that could trigger an exchange of ICBMs.
Twitter suffers from the difficulty of crafting logical and enforceable rules that apply to all its users. That's Twitter's problem. It's also Twitter's users' problem, and that's fine. We chose to be here. But it shouldn't be the whole planet's problem.