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Trump's brief Twitter outage prompts cheers, concerns

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departing the White House for a trip to Asia, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, in Washington.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
November 03, 2017 - 9:53 AM

Some cheered and others raised concerns when President Donald Trump's Twitter account, a mouthpiece for the U.S. presidency, mysteriously went dark for a few minutes this week.

"My Twitter account was taken down for 11 minutes by a rogue employee," Trump wrote from his restored account early Friday morning, making light of the brief Thursday evening outage that vexed many of his millions of followers. "I guess the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact."

Twitter on Thursday night blamed a customer support worker for deactivating Trump's account on his or her last day on the job. The San Francisco-based social media company has promised a "full internal review" and said it is taking steps to prevent it from happening again. It has declined further explanation, raising questions not only about its own safeguards but on Trump's heavy reliance on a single platform to broadcast his views.

While Twitter's customer service employees have the ability to suspend or remove accounts, or delete individual tweets, over violations of service terms, they cannot post on someone else's account. What's less clear is if the company has tougher safeguards for taking action on higher-profile accounts, such as Trump's.

"It's not surprising that even the brief shutdown of the president's Twitter account has provoked debate," said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute, which filed a federal lawsuit last month challenging Trump's practice of blocking Twitter users who criticize him or his policies.

Twitter has been Trump's primary means of communicating with the masses since even before he launched his presidential campaign. During the campaign and in the White House, Trump has been open about resisting pleas from family and friends to set aside his mobile device and to act more presidential. Trump says the service allows him to get his message out to his supporters without the filter of the media, but it's also allowed him to circumvent his own staff.

Trump's twitter missives frequently catch even senior aides off guard, such as when he ratcheted up the rhetoric on North Korea this summer. Bombarded with questions about the 140-character policy statements or political attacks, White House staffers are often in the dark themselves. "The tweets speak for themselves," is a common refrain from staff unable or unwilling to explain the president's comments.

Jaffer said Friday that "love it or hate it, the account has become an important source of news and information about the government" and Trump's tweets "often shed light on official decisions and policies — and even when they don't, they shed light on the temperament, character, and motives of the person most responsible for them."

Trump uses Instagram and Facebook sparingly, usually to amplify items he has already tweeted out. He directly controls the @realdonaldtrump account on Twitter, while aides control the other platforms. Trump has been using that account since 2009; it now counts more than 41 million followers.

Twitter has struggled in recent months in how it enforces, and explains, its procedures for managing accounts that violate its policies designed to prevent hate, harassment and other abuse of the platform. That's why when Trump's account went dark Thursday, some observers assumed it was a formal rebuke. His critics celebrated.

"Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump's Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes," wrote U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who offered to buy the unidentified employee a Pizza Hut pizza.

Other critics suggested the lull was too brief, or speculated the disgruntled employee was an antagonist from the public sphere, from special counsel Robert Mueller to the rogue stormtrooper from a recent "Star Wars" movie.

Some linked the president's use of Twitter as his official mouthpiece to a real-world debate about the 25th Amendment — which allows the vice-president to take over if the commander in chief is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Trump supporters warned of censorship.

Just days earlier, the company had shut down the personal account of a close Trump ally, Roger Stone, after a profanity-laced tirade insulting journalists. Stone responded by calling the company the "totalitarian corporate thought police."

"My feed was not for the faint-hearted," Stone wrote in an online essay this week. "It was pungent, pugnacious and sometimes risque. Not as over the top (as) the hordes on Twitter who have threatened to kill me, my wife, my kids and my dogs but then Twitter doesn't seem to care about banning them."


AP Technology Writer Ryan Nakashima in Menlo Park, California, and AP writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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