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Trump and Twitter's toxic, symbiotic relationship is finally over

CNN logo CNN 1/11/2021 Analysis by Brian Fung, CNN Business
Donald Trump, Jack Dorsey are posing for a picture © Erin Schaff/Pool/Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump's tweeting privileges were briefly restored following Twitter's temporary lock on his account this week for inciting what became a violent insurrection at the US Capitol. In his first tweet since being let out of the penalty box, Trump shared a video conceding that he will be a one-term president. He would tweet twice more before Twitter determined it had finally had enough.

For Twitter, the challenge of what to do about Trump's account was poised to only get more difficult, not less. As Trump reemerged, the company faced a test of its commitment that any further violations of its policies by the President would result in a permanent ban. Even one more transgression could land Trump in Twitter jail — forever. It happened even more quickly than many would have thought.

It was a game of chicken that Trump, whose entire presidency has been devoted to breaking rules and testing boundaries, barely got to play.

For the last four years, Twitter was central to Trump's presidency, a fact that also benefited the company in the form of countless hours of user engagement. Twitter took a light-touch approach to moderating his account, often arguing that as a public official, Trump must be given wide latitude to speak.

But as Trump neared the end of his term — and as public pressure grew against the platform — the balance shifted. Last spring, the company began applying warning labels to Trump's tweets in an attempt to correct his misleading claims ahead of the election; it arguably had the opposite effect, prompting Trump to retaliate with an executive order and ever more baseless claims of election fraud.

With those claims having reached their zenith by spurring a full-blown riot, Wednesday saw the most aggressive moves yet by Twitter and other companies to rein Trump in. For the first time in four years, it seemed, Trump will need to appease Twitter more than Twitter needs to appease him.

Still, although Twitter was the first major social media platform to penalize Trump for his actions this week, its punishment was hardly the most severe until Friday evening. It merely required that Trump remove three incendiary tweets, followed by a 12-hour inability to tweet.

Even as Trump spent much of Thursday in Twitter timeout, a number of platforms went further. Snapchat and Twitch blocked Trump completely; Shopify shut down online stores tied to Trump. Mark Zuckerberg announced that Trump would be banned from posting on Facebook and Instagram for at least two weeks, if not "indefinitely."

Those decisions mean that these platforms — perhaps conveniently — will no longer have to moderate Trump's content for as long as he remains president.

Twitter ultimately decided it was time for the nuclear option.

Trump on thin ice

On Wednesday, when it first imposed its temporary lockdown on Trump's account, Twitter explained that the violence in Washington had forced the company's hand. Trump could regain access to tweeting if he complied with the requirement, as he did.

But, Twitter warned, "future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account."

It's unclear how many violations Twitter may have meant. Asked for comment earlier Friday, the company merely reiterated what it said in its tweet.

The wording of the statement, however, left it abundantly clear: Trump was on thin ice. Twitter did not say that future violations might lead to a ban, or could lead to a ban. It said that future violations "will result" in Trump being booted off the platform.

The only question was how Twitter would enforce its own commitment. It answered in short order.

A showdown years in the making

In the past, Twitter and other top social media platforms consistently found ways to avoid having to sanction Trump too harshly. From establishing policy exceptions for world leaders to devising ineffectual, milquetoast warning labels, tech platforms largely allowed Trump to promote lies, conspiracy theories and hate directly to millions of followers.

Adam Sharp, Twitter's former head of news, government and elections, told CNN Business this week that the company initially believed it could design policies that applied to all elected officials and that Trump's conduct, as egregious as it sometimes was, would ultimately remain within that box.

"A lot of the decision-making always goes back to the very engineering-like culture where everything ties back to this notion of scalability," Sharp said. "There are no one-offs. Everything is scalable. You're not trying to make a policy about one president, you're trying to make a policy about all presidents."

Trump repeatedly pushed the limits of those policies, culminating in a video addressed to his supporters Wednesday in which he nominally told rioters to "go home," but which also made clear he was not entirely upset by their misconduct.

Although Trump's next video the following evening condemned the mob, CNN reported that Trump's advisers had to pressure him into reciting the script, which was written for him by staff.

All of Trump's instincts -- and by now it's clear he allows his instincts to govern him, rather than the other way around -- inevitably pushed him toward a showdown with Twitter.

The stakes were enormous: In an instant, Trump lost access to more than 88 million Twitter followers and his preferred tool for bypassing the traditional media. Twitter, meanwhile, had its credibility tested like never before, as newly empowered congressional Democrats blasted social media's role in enabling Trump and warned of new legislation to regulate the tech industry.

"Their 11th-hour conversion now to suddenly take down Trump's Facebook or Twitter is way too little, too late," Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday. "I'm pretty damn angry."

Questions remained: Who will blink first? Who will call whose bluff?

Now that we know the answers, we're left searching for the lasting repercussions -- for Trump, Twitter and the social media industry writ large.

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