One of the more interesting debates that I read about in the news recently, was the state of Trump’s Twitter account. In the past, things that our presidents have written have become part of the official presidential record. As we moved into the digital age, it was easy to transfer this notion to things like e-mail, which functioned similarly to physical correspondence.
Then along came social media. The biggest difference with social media sites such as Twitter, is that you’re writing something into a system that is wholly owned by a third party. Your tweets, instagrams, and status updates are no longer your sole property when you write them. They belong to the social network, which then uses that information to help define advertising algorithms and other data needs. So what happens when a president sends out a tweet on a service that is a corporate entity?
The current thinking is that Trump’s tweets are in fact presidential records and therefore must be preserved. I’ve yet to see any type of ruling on what should happen to deleted tweets, but that issue needs to get squared away. If all of the president’s writing is supposed to be kept and recorded, even deleting tweets could constitute a breach of the Presidential Records Act.
However, what intrigues me even more is the notion that Trump has blocked people from seeing his Twitter feed. The deletion of tweets is one thing, but what if specific people are not allowed to see something that others in the general public are allowed to see? For you and I, that’s not a big deal. If you’re the leader of the free world, and your public statements are seen as official statements from the commander-in-chief, then you’ve just disenfranchised a segment of the population.
This is where the legal arguments are going to get very interesting. I think the first question that is going to need to be answered, is how social media accounts relate to officials in elected office. A statement that is put on a social media site becomes the property of that site, yet it is from an elected official who has a duty to the entire American people. One could make the argument that in the past, not everyone had access to televisions, and therefore presidential speeches that were broadcast are still valid, despite their access being blocked to some. Yet, I feel like we need to come up with some new rules for the new reality we live in.
The Internet has quickly replaced most other forms of media as the primary way that people interact with their government and elected officials. The internet is a very different medium than radio and television, and it’s important that we understand that distinction as we form new policy. The internet isn’t just a conduit for spreading a message. It is a whole new way of interacting with people, with new rules and customs, that break the traditional walls of separation. Say what you want about Trump, but his action to continue using his own Twitter account will have a seismic effect on how we talk about presidential records in the future.
Everyone knows how I feel about Trump, but I actually am thankful that his arrogance and inexperience is forcing others to ask questions that they haven’t asked before. Technology is changing society and we need to figure out how to keep up in our slower moving institutions. This is true not just for law and public policy, but religion and medicine for other examples. As a human society we need to have real discussions about how our online interactions change the very nature of how we communicate, and record our history. It’s an exciting, and very scary, time to be alive, but if we approach these questions with honesty we’ll come through on the other side.