The Case for Removing All Politicians From Twitter

Political omnipresence has gone too far

Credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

MMany celebrated when Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter would stop accepting political advertising. Perhaps it was a shot at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s self-serving defense of political ads, and it probably wasn’t a major sacrifice for Twitter. And even though I believe it’s a step in the right direction, albeit with some problems, I would argue for a more radical move of not letting anyone holding political office use Twitter as a platform or a mouthpiece for that office. It’s dangerous and disruptive to allow individuals with political power to have the ability to broadcast propaganda and political noise, without intermediaries, into the private space of individuals.

It is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian state that the politically powerful have the ability to force their messages into the private lives of the populace. George Orwell anticipated it in 1984 with “telescreens” that constantly broadcast propaganda, and North Korea has reportedly implemented a similar system, wiring each individual home with a one-way radio. There is no way to turn off the voice of Kim Jong Un, the Great Successor, and removing the device is criminal.

Twitter gives those in power, like President Trump, the ability to deliver their messages to our pockets and screens at any time of day. This provides a constant barrage of reasons to fear or cheer, depending on your side, the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. Unlike the North Korean radio, of course, I can decide not to follow the president. I don’t, in fact, follow him on Twitter for this very reason. I’ve found that doesn’t help. His tweets unleash a fusillade of retweets, comments, and outraged reactions that are frankly unavoidable.

There’s no need for Twitter to serve as a tool of political omnipresence.

You can try blocking the president too, but others will retweet his tweets to comment on them and although you’ll see a message that the tweet is unavailable, that’s almost worse. You can even go so far as to block words that might show you his tweets, but what else will that block? Even if we decide to abandon Twitter, the media will be delighted to tell us about it. Whether you are on Twitter or not, how many days have you gone in the past two years without hearing about one of Trump’s tweets?

It is a sign of an oppressive government that one cannot escape the personalities in power. It’s probably inevitable in an age of 24-hour news that the U.S. president is essentially unavoidable, whether it’s a Trump or a Clinton. But Twitter takes the invasion to a new level, bringing the actual words of our leader, delivered for his own particular purposes, unvetted and unchecked, into our space. There is no need for Twitter to serve as a tool of political omnipresence.

Suppose Barack Obama had given a weekly broadcast on national television reading a list of people he thought traitorous to the values of the United States? The list could include politicians, celebrities, or anyone whose nose peeked out into the national stage — perhaps by writing an article critical of the government. I think we realize how dangerous this would be, and how it would chill dissent. (And for those who think this is a matter of free speech, consider that it would be completely within the rights of a particular station to refuse to air the President’s List.) Even if violence isn’t explicitly endorsed, being declared a persona non grata of the president of the United States would be punishing. How comfortable would you be knowing that someone who enjoys the total support of millions of your fellow Americans has targeted you with their ire? I think we see its effects within the party of the president, and I suspect it has had an effect on the willingness of citizens to speak out.

Twitter as the constant megaphone of political power not only does violence to the everyday experience of being an American, it complicates our relations with our country’s allies and adversaries. An unfiltered stream of the president’s thoughts undermines the stable ground upon which we are able to build diplomacy. Imagine being in a relationship with someone who was apt, every day or so, to announce to the world how things were going with your relationship. Imagine you were negotiating a business deal and the person on the other end constantly aired their feelings about you and the deal. These situations would be unnerving, to say the least, and it is much worse when the lives of millions hang in the balance. Despite the preferences of our president, the best relationships are not formed amid chaos.

Though President Trump has certainly brought home the danger of Twitter as a political platform, we shouldn’t think he is the worst there will be or that there aren’t others who abuse the platform. (According to Foreign Policy, 97% of UN member states maintain a Twitter presence, and we’ve seen politicians from French President Emmanuel Macron to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte adopt the medium.) The case is strongest for banning political chief executives from Twitter, but we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of others in power. The fact that I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t mean she should be using a social network as a political instrument or that her doing so is always harmless.

It’s not easy to draw a set of clear lines that determine when a service like Twitter is being used as a mouthpiece for a political office. The solution is probably not simply to ban politicians from using Twitter in any form, but we should definitely not ignore the harms caused by bringing the noise of governance unfiltered into our private lives. It would be best if governments placed these restrictions on themselves, but it’s a sign of our times that the health of democracy and the sanity of citizenship depend on the decisions of entrepreneurs like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. We must insist that they make the decisions that are best for all of us.

Robert Howell is professor of philosophy at SMU. Author of Consciousness and the Limits of Objectivity (Oxford, 2013).

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