Elon Musk said Tuesday at a Financial Times conference that if he does indeed purchase Twitter — Friday morning Musk tweeted that the deal was “temporarily on hold” — he will reinstate former President Donald Trump’s account. After the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, Trump was permanently suspended by Twitter for using it to incite violence.
Musk added that under his ownership, if users say something “destructive to the world, then there should be perhaps a timeout, a temporary suspension, or that particular tweet should be made invisible. … I think if there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension, a temporary suspension, is appropriate, but not a permanent ban.”
This standard, of course, is incredibly vague — everything and nothing could be deemed “destructive to the world” or “wrong and bad.” As Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook, pointed out, Musk’s words suggest that he’s given no thought to why the question of content moderation on Twitter is so vexed:
The scary fact is that no one knows what to do about the dangerous chain reaction that can happen when Twitter collides with world leaders generally, and Trump specifically.
Given the fact that Trump could plausibly be elected president again in 2024, we have to hope that someone at Twitter will consider this, rather than, as Musk does now, just blithely advocate “free speech” with some ad hoc, unpredictable restrictions.
That’s particularly true because Mark Esper, Trump’s defense secretary toward the end of his term, has confirmed in his new book “A Sacred Oath” that Trump and Twitter could have combined to end human civilization in January 2018.
While it’s largely been forgotten now, there was a significant chance that the U.S. and North Korea would go to war during the first year of the Trump administration. Retired military and diplomatic experts at the time estimated the odds as being 20, 30, or even 50 percent.
Such a war might easily have become, as Trump ally Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said during the period of greatest danger, “one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization. It is going to be very, very brief. The end of it is going to see mass casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen. It will be of biblical proportions.”
When Trump took office in January 2017, U.S. intelligence believed that North Korea had manufactured dozens of nuclear devices. In July 2017, the North Korean government successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S.
It was this — the possibility that the U.S. was vulnerable to the nuclear sword of Damocles that we had dangled over North Korea’s head for decades — that caused Trump to proclaim in August that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The next month at the United Nations, Trump similarly said the U.S. might be forced “to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man [i.e., North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] is on a suicide mission.”
Trump then jumped on Twitter that month to proclaim that Kim was “obviously a madman” who “will be tested like never before!” He followed it up the same day by tweeting, “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U. N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”
Such berserk bellicosity from a U.S. president would be alarming under any circumstances but was especially so involving North Korea. Jeffrey Lewis, a longtime North Korea observer and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, was so worried about Trump’s behavior that he wrote an entire speculative novel imagining how the president might accidentally start a nuclear war via tweet.
“North Korea,” Lewis told me recently via Twitter direct message, “has a nuclear strategy that relies on preemptively using nuclear weapons to repel a US invasion. If North Korean leaders think an invasion is imminent, their plan — at least on paper — is to use nuclear weapons against US forces in South Korea and Japan to destroy any invasion forces and shock the United States.”
And the North Korean government, Lewis said, doesn’t “have the kind of global hi-tech monitoring system the United States does. Instead they have to rely on signs and indicators. We don’t really know what indicators they use, but we think one of the most important indicators that the North Koreans rely on is the presence of military families in South Korea. The North Koreans think the U.S. would evacuate those families to safety before any invasion.”
This was the situation on January 3, 2018, when Trump tweeted, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ … I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Esper, then serving as secretary of the Army, learned later that month that Trump was about to order all U.S. military dependents out of South Korea — announcing it on Twitter. “Kim would probably view a U.S. evacuation as a prelude to a conflict,” Esper writes in his book, echoing Lewis’s fears. “Would he strike first, targeting Seoul? … Would this be like the beginning of World War I? … This was a dangerous game of chicken, and with nuclear roosters no less.”
Thankfully for all humanity, someone — Esper still has no idea who — “talked the president out of sending the tweet. … War averted.”
What Twitter should do if Trump is again president is an extraordinary conundrum.
Esper understandably remained anxious throughout the rest of his tenure in the Trump administration, with war with North Korea always at the top of his mind. “Who knew when another doomsday tweet might come?” he asks. “We had to be ready.”
However, Twitter was not and is not ready. What Twitter should do if Trump is again president is an extraordinary conundrum. World leaders obviously have many ways to communicate with the world and the right to do so. But Twitter is unique in that it allows them — at least those who want to — to issue proclamations with no intermediaries or counsel, just by getting their phone out of their pocket. And Trump is uniquely erratic and foolhardy.
It would be nice if there was a universal Twitter policy that dealt with the danger of Trump and Twitter — possibly no presidents and prime ministers, especially ones that lead nuclear powers, should be permitted to have Twitter accounts. They could still deal death and destruction upon the world on purpose, but this kind of circuit breaker might make them less likely to do so by accident.
Or perhaps Trump should be dealt with specifically, if he ever claws his way back to the Oval Office. That wouldn’t be ideal, but then again, neither is global thermonuclear war.
At the very least, it would be nice to imagine that the people running Twitter, whether that’s Musk or anyone else, have spent a great deal of time pondering the existential danger created by their bird app. But as of now, there’s little sign of this on the horizon. (Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he is aware of this history.)