Twitter Grapples Anew With Its Trump Conundrum

But when President Trump posted a veiled threat in January that Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, had “not paid the price, yet” for helping to spearhead an impeachment inquiry against him, Twitter didn’t put a warning on the tweet.

But when Mr. Trump falsely asserted last week that Michigan’s secretary of state had “illegally” sent out absentee ballot applications for the November election during the pandemic, Twitter did not affix any labels on that message, either.

On Tuesday, Twitter’s handling of Mr. Trump’s tweets — or what some say has been a startling lack of handling — again came to the fore.

That was when the widower of Lori Klausutis, who died in 2001 from complications of an undiagnosed heart condition while working for Joe Scarborough, a Florida congressman at the time, asked Twitter to delete Mr. Trump’s tweets about his late wife. Mr. Trump had posted false conspiracy theories about Ms. Klausutis’s death in recent days, suggesting that Mr. Scarborough was involved, as part of his long-running feud with the MSNBC host.

Twitter said it would not remove Mr. Trump’s posts about Ms. Klausutis, even as her widower called them “horrifying lies,” because they did not violate its terms of service. That echoed what the social media company has repeatedly said about its lack of action on Mr. Trump’s posts: That while his messages may skirt the line of what’s accepted under Twitter’s rules, they never cross it.

The San Francisco company’s latest refusal to take down Mr. Trump’s posts — which are often riddled with falsehoods, inaccuracies and threats — highlights its conundrum with the president. Mr. Trump, who uses Twitter as his social media platform of choice, has brought attention and growth to the company. If Twitter deleted his tweets, it would escalate accusations from conservative politicians that it censors their political views.

Twitter creating a carve-out for public leaders is “misguided,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, who studies disinformation. “If world leaders are not kept to the same standard as everyone else, they wield more power to harass, defame and silence others.”

Twitter is in a tough spot, Ms. Donovan added. If it removed the president’s tweets, he could open an investigation into Twitter or fast-track regulations on the company. But allowing his tweets to remain could keep spreading the misinformation, she said.

Yet Mr. Dorsey has appeared unwilling to tackle Mr. Trump’s tweets even though disinformation experts said political tweets from world leaders often reach a wider audience than political ads and have a greater power to misinform.

“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” a Twitter spokesman, Nick Pacilio, said in a statement. “We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.” The company declined further comment.

Some of the renewed criticism appeared to push Twitter to act. On Tuesday afternoon, it marked two of Mr. Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots with a “Get the facts” link to more information.

Twitter is not the only tech company struggling with moderating Mr. Trump’s threats and falsehoods online. Mr. Trump posted identical comments about Ms. Klausutis’s death on Facebook. One of his posts there gained about 4,000 comments and 2,000 shares and was not mentioned by Mr. Klausutis. On Twitter, that same post, which questioned whether Mr. Scarborough had gotten away with murder, was shared 31,000 times and received 23,000 replies.

For years, Twitter took a hands-off approach to moderating the posts on its platform. That brought it acclaim when it enabled dissidents to tweet about political protests, like the Egyptian revolution in 2011. But it also allowed trolls, bots and malicious operatives onto the site, making Twitter an epicenter for harassment, misinformation and abuse.

But Mr. Trump himself has escaped enforcement. Although he has sometimes deleted his own tweets when they contain misspellings, Twitter has largely left his posts alone.

That hands-off treatment has been controversial inside Twitter. In 2017, a rogue Twitter worker deactivated Mr. Trump’s account. The account was reinstated in about 10 minutes.

Critics have piled on over time. Last year, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, asked Mr. Dorsey to suspend Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. In a letter to Ms. Harris, Twitter reiterated its public stance on tweets by world leaders and said it would err on the side of leaving the posts up if there was a public interest in doing so.

Other world leaders have not enjoyed similar freedom on Twitter. Tweets from the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, that promoted unproven cures for the coronavirus were recently removed.

Twitter has maintained that Mr. Trump does not violate its policies and that the company would take action if he crossed the line.

“We believe it’s important that the world sees how global leaders think and how they act. And we think the conversation that ensues around that is critical,” Mr. Dorsey said in an interview with HuffPost last year. If Mr. Trump posted something that violated Twitter’s policies, Mr. Dorsey added, “we’d certainly talk about it.”

Kate Conger reported from Oakland, Calif., and Davey Alba from New York. Ben Decker contributed reporting.

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