Facebook and Twitter's Tolerance of Trump is Starting to Shift

Online, president Trump often seems untouchable—attacking political rivals, settling scores and lashing out at the media without consequence.

However, as the 2020 election approaches, experts say there are some signs that his free reign on Twitter and Facebook may be coming to an end or—at the very least—that tolerance of his antics is shifting, with his posts increasingly being placed under scrutiny.

If there is a line for the two platforms it is blurry, but experts told Newsweek repeated incitement or hate speech would be most likely to hasten Trump's downfall on social media, a final step-too-far that would be met with strict enforcement.

"I think there are signs that the game is changing a bit, and that it might soon become possible that Donald Trump is held to [similar] standards as the rest of us. Small signs, but signs nonetheless," said Paul Bernal, an associate professor in IT, intellectual property and media law at the U.K.'s UEA School of Law.

Last month, Twitter flagged one of Trump's posts that contained the phrase "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" for glorifying violence, placing it behind a notice but ultimately leaving it online because it "may be in the public's interest."

Internal debate has swirled inside Facebook in recent weeks over its executive decision not to label or police the same post, despite concerns it was inciting state violence on protestors taking to the streets following the death of George Floyd on May 25.

The inaction led to rare displays of staff dissent, with some employees staging a virtual walkout and others publicly voicing concerns on rival social networks.

It's obvious that enforcement boundaries at each platform are different, with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg reluctant to fact-check or restrict the posts of elected officials, recently saying his services will continue to be on the "side of free expression."

Broadly, Facebook policies are a little more absolutist, firmly centered on its community guidelines without exceptions, it claims, for politicians or newsworthiness, although Zuckerberg announced a review of some policies would be taking place.

The current Facebook policy is that if a post incites violence it is taken down, not hidden behind a notice or labeled, regardless of who made the comments. Zuckerberg said on June 5 he was now open to hearing new ideas about alternative approaches.

Twitter appears to be more fluid. The website suddenly took steps to ban political ads last year, while its CEO Jack Dorsey has directly responded to erroneous claims by the president, who said the platform was fighting hard for "radical left democrats."

Still, despite now being willing to flag Trump's posts, Twitter gives politicians some room to bend the rules if their posts are noteworthy, saying in a 2019 blog it will "err on the side of leaving the content up if there is a clear public interest in doing so."

"If we were to imagine one of the social networks coming down on him, the devil's in the data," social media lecturer, researcher and founder of consulting firm Battenhall, Drew Benvie, told Newsweek, citing Facebook's own transparency report. "I would say that the hate speech category, which is used to remove statements against 'protected characteristics' such as race, ethnicity, gender or disability, would be the most likely reason for a post by Trump being deleted."

According to the consultant, who analyzed both platforms' guidelines, the hate speech category on Facebook saw "almost double the number of posts needing deletion in the first three months of 2020 compared to the previous three months."

Facebook removed billions of unwanted posts from its website in Q1 2020, including 1.9 billion categorized as spam, according to a report compiled by Statisia.

The content Facebook is trying to outlaw can be broken into nine categories: violence, adult nudity, terrorism, hate speech, bullying and harassment, child nudity and sexual exploitation, suicide and self-injury, regulated goods and spam.

Within the first three months of 2020, the most pieces of content taken action on by the Facebook moderation team were adult nudity and sexual activity (39.5 million), followed by violent and graphic content (25.5 million) and hate speech (9.6 million).

This may indicate exactly the type of content Facebook is unwilling to stand for, and which posts by the president are most at risk of enforcement action.

Last week Facebook took action against advertising from president Trump's re-election campaign for violating its policies on hate by using Nazi-like symbols.

"Facebook's treatment of president Trump will likely end up the same as Twitter's. We may see the odd warning on Trump's posts in the coming months, but I doubt he'll be treated like 'normal' for a long time to come," Benvie said.

"Does President Trump get preferential treatment from social networks? Absolutely. By definition, there's a different set of rules for Trump to the average social media user. I don't think we will see a post on social media by Trump himself deleted."

An experiment taking place on social media that is echoing Trump's posts verbatim has already shown how enforcement is tricky—flagging posts without labeling or putting any restrictions on the president's feed, before later blaming mysterious errors.

Last week, a doctored video shared by Trump—claiming to show a "racist baby"—was branded as "manipulated media" on Twitter but only removed from Facebook after the platform received a copyright complaint from one of the child's parents.

"Twitter's patience might be ending"

Bernal told Newsweek it is likely that a post containing "direct incitement" would be the most likely type of content to force a response from Zuckerberg's platform. "I think it's very likely he will do more like the looting/shooting post, particularly if the polls are looking dodgy. I don't think he'll be called to account for fakery," he said.

"It's clear to all relatively neutral observers he has not been held to [normal standards] so far—what he gets away with in terms of incitement, fake news and much more would not be accepted by many other accounts. However, the fact that a couple of his tweets were blocked at the end of May signalled Twitter's patience might be ending, and the recent ban of Katie Hopkins, who Trump had retweeted, is another small sign."

Experts said the relationship between Trump and the social networks is complicated by the fact he clearly brings an audience, possibly resulting in a financial incentive for his persistence. On Twitter, the president has more than 82 million followers.

"It boils down to one question for me: does Twitter need Trump more than Trump needs Twitter?" Bernal said. "Trump has seemed to assume that he was so valuable to Twitter it would never hold him to account—but the tweet-blocking suggests they might.

"It's a hard calculation for Twitter, because Trump really brings in a lot of traffic and presumably revenue to accompany it. I suspect Twitter will be a little bit brave, doing a few more blocks of individual tweets, but not go the whole hog and ban him."

It was a similar stance echoed by technologist Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO of social media marketing company Socialbakers, who told Newsweek that Trump is likely to be a "solid source of revenue" for Facebook and Twitter, though financials are unknown.

"Removing president Trump from social media will not make much of a difference, it will just force the conversation to happen elsewhere," he said.

Ultimately, the relationship between the social networks and the president will remain complex, as platforms struggle to find a way to police his posts consistently, Mark Brill, senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University, U.K., told Newsweek.

"If I threatened to blow up the leader of another country I'm sure I would be instantly banned," he said. "Yet, as the U.S. president, Donald Trump made a direct threat to Kim Jong Un on Twitter to do exactly that. The tweet remained untouched.

"When the intimidation is closer to home then it becomes trickier for the social media channels. Twitter, and especially Facebook, have continued to argue 'public interest' by not banning controversial posts from word leaders.

"Will Trump ever be banned? It's not impossible, but the president has made it clear he will try to regulate anyone who censors him. For Facebook and Twitter, that's a pretty strong public interest."

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media prior to his Marine One departure from the White House February 7, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump is traveling to Charlotte, North Carolina, to speaks at a “North Carolina Opportunity Now” summit. Alex Wong/Getty