Is Twitter right to clear White House followers upon Biden transition?


Fact Box

  • Twitter originally claimed itself to be the “free speech wing of the free speech party.”  
  • Twitter has been more aggressive in the fight against disinformation on its platform recently, placing warning labels on President Trump about mail-in ballots and another during a protest where he said 'looting' would lead to 'shooting.'
  • After Donald Trump was sworn into office in 2016, the official White House Twitter accounts were transferred from the Obama administration to the Trump administration in the “first even Twitter transfer of power in US history.” 
  • Wednesday, December 23, President-elect Biden’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, announced once Biden is sworn into office on January 20, Twitter will delete all of the previous followers. On inauguration, Twitter will send a notification to all previous followers asking if they want to follow the new Biden administration account.

Andrew (No)

It is unclear why Twitter would reset the @POTUS and @WhiteHouse accounts to zero followers once Biden takes office since the followers of these accounts have presumably chosen to follow out of the desire to hear from their elected official. Twitter accounts are tools with which elected officials can communicate directly with the public in a verified way, and they belong to the elected official's office--not the individual themself. Further, many of these individuals have their own personal accounts, such as President Trump and his @realDonaldTrump account. If individual followers no longer wish to follow the account of an office following an election, they are free to simply unfollow the account themselves; there is no reason for Twitter to take this sweeping action.

Twitter's decision to reset these accounts represents a break with precedent. When Donald Trump assumed the presidency four years ago, all of the followers accumulated by President Obama were passed along to the new users of these accounts. Perhaps the perception that President Trump has had an outsized influence on Twitter is driving this decision; however, it is worth noting that two of the top-ten most popular tweets of all time came from President Obama. President Trump failed to even show up on his favorite medium's most popular tweets list. This break with precedent means that the Biden administration will not have the ability to immediately speak to millions of followers in an unfiltered way as the previous administration had. This could be a serious disadvantage for Biden at a time when clear messaging is so critical. 

Kevin (Yes)

Although this action will be a reversal of Twitter's policy from 2016, when the social media giant transferred followers from Obama's POTUS account to Trump's, a Twitter spokesperson pointed out that current followers will be notified and given a choice to follow the new account. The older posts will also be archived. The Hill further notes that Trump's personal account currently has more followers than the current POTUS and 'WhiteHouse' accounts combined, suggesting that most of his 'real' followers are already there anyway. As Daniel Uria pointed out on the UPI website, Trump has mostly interacted through that personal account anyway. Rebecca Lodge, a marketing specialist, also brought up a good point to Yahoo! News, saying that 'it could be a clever move by Twitter to ensure that any potential negative and hate-fuelled tweets are neutralized' before Biden takes over. At the end of the day, this move could end up just saving some people the time of unfollowing the POTUS account themselves when the new president starts using it.

Further, taking issue with Twitter's plan seems to be relatively trivial since anyone who wants to is free just to go and follow the new account. Since the older posts are apparently not being removed, it doesn't seem as though there will be any loss of access to information. There is no indication that anyone is being blocked or prevented from accessing the reassigned POTUS account either. Just from the perspective of keeping things tidy, it makes perfect sense to 'reset' these kinds of accounts and archive them as new presidents take office, even if it hasn't been done in the past.

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