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Politics

Trump can tweet almost anything he wants

As far as the rules on how to behave on Twitter go, only the US president gets a pardon.

Jaap Arriens, NurPhoto via Getty Images

When it comes to Twitter's rules of behavior, Donald Trump gets a pass.

Twitter said as much on Monday, defending its reasons for not removing the president's tweets over the weekend that North Korea interpreted as a "declaration of war."

"Some of you have been asking why we haven't taken down the tweet" that heightened tensions with North Korea, the company began in a tweetstorm. "We hold all accounts to the same rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether tweets violate our rules. Among the considerations is 'newsworthiness' and whether a tweet is of public interest.'"

In short, the president's tweets get special treatment despite Twitter saying two months ago that Trump's account gets no special treatment just because he's the leader of the free world. Note: Trump tweets from his personal account, rather than the official @Potus Twitter handle.

"The rules are the rules, we enforce them the same way for everybody," the company's head of trust and safety, Del Harvey, told journalists in July. Except -- not really. And that's angered and troubled a number of observers, who say Trump's role as head of the free world could encourage some of his 39.3 million followers to engage in abusive behavior of their own.

"Presidents have a bully pulpit like few have," said Karen North, head of the University of Southern California's digital social-media program, who thinks many of Trump's tweets push the First Amendment to the edge.

"Part of the issue is we think the standard should be higher for the president, and it's jarring when we see a president say something that we feel violates our social norms and people look for a way to criticize it," she added.

So where does that leave the rest of Twitter's more than 328 million users? Do we know how far is too far? Twitter won't say how many people it's banned from its 11-year-old service, but a few high-profile users show how it's possible to go a bridge too far.

Rapper Azealia Banks was suspended for racist and homophobic comments last year directed at pop star Zayn Malik. Also in 2016, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was banned for leveling racist and misogynist tweets at comedian Leslie Jones, prompting many of his followers to do the same.  

Twitter says it's been making progress removing abusive behavior. It's clamping down on 10 times as many abusive tweeters as it did last year. And it said it's limiting "account functionality" or placing suspensions on thousands more abusive accounts each day. But again, it won't share specific numbers.

That's all fine, said Brianna Wu, who hired personal security after Twitter trolls targeted her for speaking out about GamerGate, an online campaign against those who challenged the way women were portrayed in video games. But she'd still like to see Twitter take a more active role with Trump's tweets.

"Their choice not to do anything means more people on all sides of the political spectrum are going to continue that behavior," Wu said. "If they don't step up and take a stand, we're going to see our political standards slide even further off the cliff."

Twitter may not have an alternative, said Roy Gutterman, a free speech professor at Syracuse University. In June, the White House said Trump's tweets are considered "official statements" by the president. The last thing Twitter wants to do is be in the business of censoring "official" government statements.

"Just because he rubs a lot of people the wrong way," Gutterman said, "that shouldn't be grounds to ban him." 

CNET reporter Erin Carson contributed to this story.

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