By John Hendel
Twitter didn’t mend any fences with conservatives when a rogue worker deactivated President Donald Trump’s much-beloved personal account for 11 minutes Thursday night. Instead, the company drew more negative attention from Congress.
“How does one person have the keys to the vault at Twitter?” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked in an interview Friday. “These are questions we’re bound to ask. … You would think they have built-in safeguards to prevent lone wolfs from acting.”
This follows other ideological conflicts that have drawn conservatives' ire to the president's favorite micro-blogging platform. Just last week, Twitter suspended the account of Trump confidant Roger Stone — perhaps permanently. And last month it briefly blocked a Senate campaign ad by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) after objecting to her rhetoric about Planned Parenthood.
On Friday, Trump seemed to take pride in Thursday's deactivation of @realDonaldTrump, tweeting that it's evidence of the impact of his 42 million-follower account.
Twitter has yet to offer a detailed explanation for Thursday’s takedown, which it initially attributed to “human error” but then blamed on “a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the worker’s last day.” The New York Times reported Friday that the person was a contractor — a frequent source of many companies’ technology woes of late.
The account takedown may intensify Washington's scrutiny of Twitter, which has been under pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to ferret out more information about its role in allowing Kremlin-linked parties to disseminate misinformation to U.S. voters.
The controversy echoed beyond the capital. The takedown was a trending topic Friday on social media site Gab, whose promise of a censorship-free environment has made it popular among some right-wing activists.
The incident also provoked some worries that a rogue Twitter employee could do something truly dangerous, such as taking over the president’s account and declaring war. But in practice, it may be much easier for an employee to deactivate an account than it would be to assume control of it.
Instead, the real danger for Twitter might be the cultural perception that it is part of a Silicon Valley liberal culture that doesn't welcome conservatives. That tension has heightened as Silicon Valley faces flak amid the Russia investigation, policy fights over net neutrality and online sex trafficking, and a debate on whether some tech companies have gotten too big.
“Conservatives watch as almost every week accounts are punished for tweets that may be controversial but are not threatening, and we can tell this is happening because we have run afoul of a single employee’s discretion,” said Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a free-market think tank, calling Thursday's incident significant.
“Social media is already under strong suspicion that accounts can be suspended and traffic denied simply because of the biases of a single employee, and now we have the most significant, legally important Twitter account disabled by a single departing employee?" he added. "This suggests that individual employees have far too much discretion and power and suggests gaping security holes at Twitter.”
Twitter said it quickly remedied the rogue employee’s actions. “We are conducting a full internal review,” Twitter tweeted Thursday night. A company spokeswoman declined to comment Friday.
Via Twitter, the company followed up Friday to say it had "implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again," adding that it wouldn't disclose the details of exactly what those steps were.
Initial reaction for others was laughter, celebrating a reprieve from Trump’s frequent tweets, which come from his personal account and his official @POTUS one. “Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump's Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “DM me & I will buy you a Pizza Hut pizza.”
Others on both sides of the aisle dismissed deeper concerns and lauded Twitter’s quick remedy of the problem.
“I wouldn’t even worry about it for two seconds,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who helped Trump’s initial outreach to Capitol Hill this year, said in an interview.
Neither the Center for Democracy & Technology nor the American Civil Liberties Union, both groups that advocate for online privacy, saw the incident as any cause for panic over security of social media accounts or likely risks of account takeover.
“There’s always been employees who have misused the keys,” said ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel Jennifer Granick. She pointed to the tension among some who would prefer that tech platforms censor users' content, whether that’s policing Russian-planted accounts and ads or kicking Trump off Twitter for what they perceive as hate speech. “They’re under extreme pressure from Congress,” she said.
Center for Democracy & Technology Vice President for Policy Chris Calabrese told POLITICO the real takeaway is that Twitter simply needs to have strong controls in place. “There should be a good mechanism for disputing these kinds of decisions,” he said, calling it more important for the average user than for Trump.
Walden, who plans to convene a hearing on social media algorithms and how they determine which content users see, told POLITICO that Thursday's incident speaks to the greater need for responsibility among tech companies — and said lawmakers will need to eye the risks closely.
Social media companies are "struggling in those areas,” Walden said. “When extraordinarily powerful entities have vulnerabilities in their operations, at some point if they’re not able to self-police, they will bring upon themselves regulation that they don’t want.”
Giovanetti singled out Twitter’s power, too.
“Twitter may not have wanted this responsibility, but platform dominance should imply some responsibility if they don’t want to run into antitrust problems,” he said.