If Twitter wanted to, it would be well within its rights to suspend Donald J. Trump’s account.
After the president-elect used Twitter last week to criticize Chuck Jones, an Indiana union leader who represents workers at the Carrier company, Mr. Jones reported receiving a series of threatening phone calls from Mr. Trump’s supporters. Similarly, last year, Mr. Trump used Twitter to attack a college student who asked him a critical question at a rally; The Washington Post reported that the woman has been barraged by obscene and deranged threats ever since.
As a corporation, Twitter is under no First Amendment obligation to let Mr. Trump use the service. It gets to make its own set of speech rules within its own walls, and among those rules is a prohibition on using the service to incite harassment. Earlier this year, the company suspended several Trump supporters who appeared to run afoul of those rules. Twitter has said that its policies apply to every user.
And yet Twitter is no position, now, to suspend @realDonaldTrump.
If you look closely at Mr. Trump’s Twitter messages, he has appeared to tack just inside the lines of the service’s rules of conduct. More than that, free speech advocates argue that Twitter’s policies ought to give great deference to political figures. Suspending Mr. Trump’s account would be censorship. Though Twitter is legally free to censor whomever it wants, it also has a duty to recognize how its actions affect the larger world.
The repercussions could be vast. As online services like Twitter become the world’s primary place for political dialogue, the rules they set up for policing political speech will have a wide-ranging impact — they could be used to ban not just billionaire presidents-elect, but also activists and dissidents across the globe.
As several free speech advocates told me, it would be difficult for Twitter to enforce a rule that bans Mr. Trump’s tweets but does not also censor speech generally. Given that we are now entering an era dominated by right-wing nationalism, these rules could well come to backfire on the progressives urging Twitter to suspend Mr. Trump.
“The problem is not necessarily in what he’s saying but that he’s the president saying it,” said Jillian York, a free speech advocate at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “If that sort of speech were censored for everyone, I would have a big problem with it,” she said. “It would be very much a violation of the spirit of freedom of expression to not allow me to critique a union leader or a journalist or a president.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump did not return requests for comment.
Rather than yielding a ban, perhaps deliberations over Mr. Trump’s tweets may elicit something deeper from Twitter: Some soul-searching over the kind of platform it wants to be.
Twitter has never been very good about setting up and enforcing speech rules. For years, it let racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism run wild. People who follow Twitter’s abuse pronouncements say that over the last few months, the company has stepped up enforcement, but it has been criticized for doing so in a way that is opaque, and that does not shed much light on its overall abuse prevention strategy.
The Trump era gives Twitter a chance to do better. It can create a set of clear rules and an objective mechanism for enforcement. More than better policies, the company could also adopt a series of technical systems that would let users police harassment and other hateful content themselves.
Randi Lee Harper, the founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, has already outlined a series of such potential fixes, many of which have not been put into effect.
Until it creates a better anti-trolling regime, suspending the president-elect’s account for the sort of messages he has posted so far would look unfairly partisan, and could well raise more trouble for Twitter, and the world, than it solves.
This is a difficult case, and the difficulty arises mainly from Twitter’s own shortcomings. Twitter has long been a place where you can post a news article critical of a presidential candidate and expect one or a dozen anonymous people to respond with a picture of your face Photoshopped into a German oven.
After critics repeatedly pointed out the hatefulness that pervaded Twitter, the company seemed to strengthen enforcement of its rules. In July, it permanently banned Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart editor and one of the internet’s leading provocateurs, who had come to use Twitter as his personal goon squad. Among other transgressions, Mr. Yiannopoulos got his followers to send racist threats and insults to Leslie Jones, the black “Saturday Night Live” comedian who co-starred in the new “Ghostbusters” movie earlier this year.
But Mr. Trump’s tweets spark a slightly different question than Mr. Yiannopoulos’s: What should Twitter (and other online services) do about messages that aren’t obvious calls to harass others, but that still end up hurting people? For instance, when Mr. Trump posts that individual journalists are dummies or hacks or unfair, it’s possible that some of his followers may see those messages as a nudge to online or even offline action.
Shortly after the election, the company appeared to take action against even such less specific tweets. It banned several right-wing accounts, including that of the white supremacist Richard Spencer. (He led his followers in a Nazi salute of “Hail Trump!” after the election.)
There wasn’t much evidence that Mr. Spencer and others who had been banned were guilty of the kind of incitement that had marked Mr. Yiannopoulos’s time on the service. Several of these users were, instead, using the platform more like Mr. Trump was — their messages were provocative, often unsettling and extremely hateful, but they were not obviously pushing their followers to attack others on Twitter or in the real world.
The enforcement against right-wing accounts set in motion lots of hand-wringing about Twitter. Twitter was now policing speech in a way that seemed “motivated entirely by viewpoint, not by behavior,” the conservative pundit David Frum wrote in The Atlantic.
The company was also doing this in the shadows. It wouldn’t explain what these people had done wrong to deserve suspensions, and it wouldn’t explain if their suspensions were to be seen as the start of a new speech policy on the service.
This week, the rules seemed to change once more, when Mr. Spencer’s account suddenly reappeared. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel reported, it turned out that Mr. Spencer had not been banned for harassment in the first place — instead he had apparently been kicked off on a technicality, because he had opened too many Twitter accounts. Once he fixed that problem, he was back on the platform. (As if to underscore its secrecy, a Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment on how the service is thinking about Mr. Trump’s activity and harassment generally.)
There are many online who find Mr. Trump’s tweets ban-worthy. Kate Knibbs, of The Ringer, wrote recently that Twitter has the same moral obligation to ban Mr. Trump as “the owner of a tavern has about when to eject a person holding a hateful rally and screaming lies within that tavern.”
But Ms. Harper of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, who has made the fight against trolling her life’s work, said she was not worked up about Mr. Trump’s tweets.
“I don’t know if he actually realizes what he’s doing,” she said. “ He tweets like my racist awful grandpa would, and I don’t think he has this great plan around what he’s doing, whereas with Milo it was very deliberate.”
You could also make an argument that Mr. Trump’s tweets are something else: useful.
“The world would be much worse off if Trump were kicked off of Twitter,” said Ben Wizner, a free speech expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Before the election, during the election and after the election, we’re all learning very important things about Trump from the way that he behaves through this unfiltered medium, so our discourse and our democracy would not benefit from removing that outlet for Trump, so that the only version of him we saw was one that was approved by his handlers.”