The U.S. president, amid the worst pandemic in more than a century, took to Twitter — his favored social media platform — to promote a debunked conspiracy theory that a cable news anchor might have killed one of his employees nearly 20 years ago.
In recent weeks, Donald Trump has mounted a campaign on Twitter insinuating that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough may have murdered an aide who died accidentally in 2001 when Scarborough was a U.S. congressman. The response to Trump’s obsession in stirring up questions about the death of the former staffer, Lori Klausutis, included a plea to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey by her widowed husband that the company delete the offending and hurtful tweets.
“The President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain,” Timothy Klausutis wrote in the letter, which was provided to The New York Times. “My wife deserves better.”
So far, Twitter hasn’t taken any action to delete Trump’s tweets or suspend his account, perhaps fearing reprisal from the White House or the president’s followers. But the latest outrage over Trump’s noxious online behavior hit a boiling point that could force Twitter’s hand in dealing with its highest-profile user.
In a statement, a Twitter rep said, “We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family. 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.”
However, Twitter already has rules in place banning bullying and harassment — it’s just not enforcing them when it comes to Trump, who is a prolific tweeter with more than 80 million followers. The company grants special exemptions to the president and other political figures for tweets that would be violations for regular users, as long as Twitter deems those posts in the “public interest.” In 2019, the platform put into place a policy under which tweets by political figures that violate its regular policies would be displayed with a warning notice in front of them.
Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press, a nonpartisan media and tech advocacy organization, says Twitter’s pattern of allowing Trump to spread the Scarborough conspiracy theory, amplify white supremacists and disseminate hoaxes about the coronavirus appear to be part of its business model. “The failure to take down hate and disinformation at Twitter is a feature, not a bug,” González says. “Twitter needs to be accountable to its users, not just to its main user.”
Twitter did, for the first time, on May 26 add a warning label to a post by Trump pointing out that what he said is inaccurate. However, the social network’s fact-check called out Trump’s falsehoods about mail-in ballots; the company has not added any labels to his tweets about Scarborough.
Observers have pointed out that Trump is simply trying to distract people from the COVID-19 catastrophe and the White House’s delayed response to the crisis. Lori Klausutis worked in one of then-Rep. Joe Scarborough’s offices in Fort Walton, Fla., where she died at 28. An autopsy revealed it was due to an undiagnosed heart condition that caused her to pass out and hit her head, which was the cause of death. Florida police ruled that her death was an accident and no foul play was involved.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from suggesting on Twitter that Scarborough might have murdered her. “A blow to her head? Body found under his desk? Left Congress suddenly?” the president tweeted May 23. “Keep digging, use forensic geniuses!” He kept up the false smears this week, claiming in a pair of May 26 tweets that when Scarborough and his spouse and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski interviewed him in 2016, “I would always be thinking … about whether or not Joe could have done such a horrible thing? Maybe or maybe not, but I find Joe to be a total Nut Job, and I knew him well, far better than most. So many unanswered & obvious questions, but I won’t bring them up now! Law enforcement eventually will?” (MSNBC did not respond to a request to interview Scarborough by press time.)
Undeniably, Twitter is in a tough position regardless of what it does vis-à-vis Trump. But Eugene Volokh, who teaches First Amendment and internet law at the UCLA School of Law, says, “I think they’re more damned if they do” delete Trump’s tweets or suspend his account because it would open the platform to allegations of bias.
“Twitter might be very reluctant to put itself into the position of adjudicating questions like this,” says Volokh. “They don’t want to be in a position where they have to deal with this every time there’s an allegation of libel.”
Jordan Moreau contributed to this report.