Late Thursday evening, rumors began to circulate on social media that two drone strikes had wiped out a top general and close ally of Iran’s supreme leader.
The rumors that an American drone had killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimali was slowly confirmed through unnamed officials in Iran and the United States who spoke on background with international news reporters, and then eventually confirmed by President Donald Trump himself in an unusual but not surprising way: A single tweet with a picture of the American flag and nothing else.
Pentagon officials later confirmed that, yes, the United States had carried out a series of drone strikes near the Baghdad airport, two of which targeted a convoy secretly carrying Soleimali, a key Iraqi paramilitary commander and several other security officials. The White House confirmed the news late Thursday evening, and Trump himself spoke about the strike with reporters at his Florida compound the following morning.
Since then, Trump has taken to Twitter several times in an attempt to justify his action.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!” Trump wrote on Friday. “Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!”
Legal experts and scholars of history suggest the assassination could have been a breach of Constitutional limitations on the low end and a war crime on the high end, while others (wrongly) say Trump was justified under a 2002 measure Congress passed that authorized the president to use military force against Iraq (the measure did not authorize Trump or any other president to use force against targets that had no connection to the Iraqi government).
Lost in the back-and-forth over the legality of the assassination and whatever future consequences it may hold is that Trump may be the first president to stoke, and perhaps even declare, war through the Internet.
Trump’s platform of choice is Twitter. While the San Francisco-based company has come down hard on activists, journalists, celebrities, trolls and other people in recent years amid criticism that the platform is a hotbed of abuse, harassment and general mental anguish, it has looked the other way when Trump and other world leaders engage in the same — and sometimes, worse — behavior.
Since taking office, Trump has used Twitter to antagonize North Korea, start false rumors about Russia, intimidate witnesses, harass journalists, slander political rivals and — perhaps we should have seen it coming — threaten Iran.
For its part, Twitter seems okay — maybe even pleased — that Trump has selected their platform to connect directly with the public. To date, no other social media platform has been able to boast that two sitting presidents have actively used their platform with the level of tenacity seen on Twitter.
That was likely the thought in mind when Twitter responded to criticism over its selective enforcement of its own terms of service — the kind that prohibit direct harassment against a person, incitement of violence, certain slurs and other acts of malfeasance — by saying it would give greater leniency to world leaders because what they have to tweet is important for people to read.
“Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global, public conversation,” a blog post published in January 2018 said. “Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society. Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.”
Twitter goes on to argue that removing a world leader like Trump from the platform would not silence them as some would wish, but rather “hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
“We review Tweets by leaders within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly,” Twitter said.
So far, that enforcement has amounted to a blank check for Trump to say whatever he want with impunity, with the social network apparently figuring that whatever Trump has to say — on his personal account that he used for several years before he became president — has roots in political discourse. And, hey, it’s not like anyone has died from a president’s tweet before.
But the assassination of Gen. Soleimali at Trump’s direction changes everything. Nowhere has Trump’s trademark approach to public discourse — filterless, unhinged, often ignorant and without regard to consequence — played out more than on Twitter. Now, people are paying closer attention to what Trump has to say, particularly on Iran, and a lot of the focus is on what Trump will tweet next. Certainly among those waiting with baited breath are world leaders — allies who are trying hard to prepare for what’s ahead with virtually little advance notice and foes who are looking for any excuse to attack.
As the crisis between the United States and Iran over the killing of Gen. Soleimali intensifies, it’s not unreasonable to assume Trump will, at some point, tweet something that instigates an attack or declaration of war. When that happens, Americans will die. By choosing not to enforce its terms equitably across users and show privilege and favor to world leaders, Twitter — as a platform and as a company — will play a role in whatever comes next. Whether it wants to be a tool used to facilitate war is something Twitter needs to consider now before it’s too late.