Social Media

The risky business of Trump the twittering president

US President Donald Trump is unprecedented in a lot more ways than could be listed in 140-characters.

But his prolific and unpredictable use of Twitter is one difference that marks him out from presidents past — a long term habit, via his personal Twitter account, which he shows few if any signs of moderating, either in volume or style, since taking up office as the Leader of the Free World at the end of last week…

Nor has he suspended use of his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account now that he also controls the official @POTUS account, with its 14.3M followers (vs Trump’s 21.9M). This is in stark contrast to President Obama who communicated solely via the official presidential Twitter channel during his eight years in office — returning to his personal Twitter account only after he’d left office.

No such clearly delineated communication lines for President Trump. Not only is Trump continuing to tweet from both accounts (at least for now), he’s been using @POTUS to RT tweets from his personal Twitter account.

So even though the president is not personally writing all @POTUS tweets himself — Dan Scavino, his director of social media, is named as the writer there (and the few @POTUS tweets Trump types himself are signed “DJT”) — a steady stream of @realDonaldTrump’s tone is being injected into the official presidential Twitter feed via liberal use of the RT button…

Trump tweet

Having a sitting U.S. president who is both so active and so unrestrained in his use of the 140-character social media platform — including using it as a tool to apply pressure to further his policy agenda through what basically amounts to cyber bully tactics — suggests a series of heightened risks.

Let’s take a look at a few of them.

 

Hacking

There’s no doubt that Trump’s Twitter accounts are going to be a massive magnet for hackers.

And while the @POTUS account itself may prove challenging for attackers to get into, given (well, you’d hope… ) a continuity in the prior security procedures that ensured president Obama’s @POTUS account was not hacked (although failures of compliance by Trump and his staff is the potential weak link here), there’s still the lure of Trump’s personal Twitter — which he continues to use for policy announcements and presidential messaging.

The president’s personal grasp of cybersecurity is clearly questionable — a poor reputation that has not been improved in recent days by his appointment of Rudy Giuliani as an advisor in such a crucial area, either.

“Trump’s Twitter use seems reckless, but I’d be surprised if the @POTUS account gets hacked,” says Mikko Hypponen, CSO of cybersecurity firm F-Secure, when asked for his thoughts on the hacking risk. “The Secret Service and other agencies tasked to secure him are well aware of the risks and are professionals in their work.”

Whether agency professionals will be able to compensate for a lack of seasoned cybersecurity expertise in the Trump camp remains the salient question — with at least one hacker suggesting things aren’t off to a promising start…

But even if the very high value target @POTUS account gets properly locked down stat that still leaves Trump’s personal Twitter as a potentially softer target, especially if multiple people have access to it (as appears to be the case) — offering hackers a secondary channel with which they could still wreak plenty of havoc.

“He’s been Twitter-hacked before, it could happen again,” argues security commentator Graham Cluley. “The risk, I would imagine, is two-fold: his account is now a much bigger target than it was before and he’s sharing access with other people. Hopefully he has Login Verifications enabled to provide some form of 2SV but some organizations which have multiple users using the same account struggle with that.

“But even if that is in place, there’s the risk that one of his staff’s computers could be compromised and a hacker could potentially use that to post to his Twitter.”

“If only we had some way of reading a tweet and knowing that only Donald Trump could have said such a thing,” adds Cluley — highlighting one of the major attractions for hackers here: aka the chance to tweet almost anything from Trump’s account (typos included!) and still have a good chance that people believe it’s genuine, thanks to Trump’s demonstrably unorthodox communications style.

 

Conflicts of interest

Trump is like no U.S. president before him in terms of the sprawling business empire he remains connected to — having only handed control of his businesses to his older sons, rather than (as was urged) putting these assets into a blind trust.

Combine this sprawling network of commercial links with Trump’s habit of using Twitter as a promotional tool and it’s not hard to see how his prolific tweet habit could exacerbate potential legal liabilities related to conflicts of interest.

Whether that’s by Trump explicitly promoting businesses he has links to, e.g. the eponymous “Trump Tower” in the above tweet — a mixed-use skyscraper he owns that not only houses his New York home and office, but various of his own businesses, such as the Trump Grill restaurant, the Trump Store, the Trump Bar… Or even implicitly, via tweets that are geotagged “at Trump Tower” — as some of @realDonaldTrump’s have been.

Or, indeed, by him sending critical tweets that negatively affect the stock price of competitors, and potentially buoying shares in his own business interests. Given the vast network of commercial interests in play with the 45th U.S. president there’s ongoing scope for Trump’s tweet storms to be entangled with all sorts of conflict of interest considerations.

There are also suggestions that a 2012 law, the STOCK Act — aimed at restricting insider trading by members of Congress and their staff — could apply to the president. And if staffers inside his administration are aware ahead of time that a particular company is about to be criticized by the president on Twitter that could widen the risk of insiders capitalizing on any Trump-triggered stock moves for personal financial gain.

“We’re seeing traders saying they’re going to be following his tweets and trying to make decisions about buying or selling stocks based on who he’s mad at in that moment,” comments attorney Jay Edelson, of Chicago based law firm Edelson, discussing potential conflict of interest risks related to Trump’s use of Twitter.

This to me is all such a crazy world that we’re in where you have the president of the U.S. sending tweets impulsively.

“This to me is all such a crazy world that we’re in where you have the president of the U.S. sending tweets impulsively.”

“I think it would be very hard to sue him for insider trading — I think the bigger issue is his tweets are going to highlight the conflicts of interest he has,” he adds, suggesting for example that Trump may find it hard to resist urging his Twitter followers to patronize business interests of his and his family.

“And frankly it doesn’t seem terribly hard to manipulate him,” adds Edelson. “If you’re a competitor of a company, and you wanted to cause chaos, you could try to get his attention about your competitor and get him to say really bad things… It’s really crazy-land that we’re in.”

 

Compliance failures

Trump’s unfortunate habit of composing tweets that contain misspellings might throw up another legal issue.

“Unpresidented” is perhaps the most (in)famous of his tweet typos so far. Another word he sometimes misspells is ‘honor’ — which he recently tweeted out as “honered“.

He’s clearly not a fan of the mockery such typos attract, and has been known to delete tweets that contain typos — including the tweet above, which was sent on January 21. The problem at this point is that as standing U.S. president all his tweets, even those from his personal account, may fall under the Presidential Records Act; a law that is intended to preserve all presidential staff communications.

AP reported earlier this week that the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is yet to make a definitive ruling on whether or not tweets sent from Trump’s personal account are considered presidential records or not. We’ve reached out to ask if they’ve come to a decision yet and will update this post with any response.

Given Trump’s recurring spelling issues it seems inevitable that he or his staff will feel the need to hit the delete button again — though it remains to be seen whether doing so will be in breach of federal law or not.

One option for the administration to avoid this possibility is for them to automatically archive Trump’s personal Twitter account, i.e. to retain any deleted tweets before they’re vanished.

But this does not appear to be being done currently. The privacy policy on the White House website only notes that content from official Twitter accounts is being archived; it does not mention Trump’s personal Twitter account:

ON TWITTER, THE WHITE HOUSE AUTOMATICALLY ARCHIVES “TWEETS” FROM OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE ACCOUNTS, “DIRECT MESSAGES” SENT TO OR FROM OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE ACCOUNTS, AND “MENTIONS” (TWEETS FROM OTHER USERS TO OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE ACCOUNTS; THESE TWEETS CONTAIN AN @ AND THE USERNAME OF AN OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE ACCOUNT (E.G., @WHITEHOUSE). THE WHITE HOUSE ALSO AUTOMATICALLY ARCHIVES ANY STATUS THAT OFFICIAL ACCOUNTS HAVE “FAVORITED.”

 

Defamation

Another Twitter-related habit of President Trump is making very public, very personal attacks on others — typically in response to criticism (explicit or implied).

In one example earlier this month he rubbished actress Meryl Streep after she made critical comments about him in an award acceptance speech — dubbing her “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood”…

By Trump standards this attack was pretty restrained. And — to be clear — this is not defamation, given Trump is merely expressing an opinion. But the risk of him being riled up and tweeting comments that do cross the legal line as he blows off steam in a tweet stream looks undeniable.

“Even celebrities are told to be really careful about their tweets because of the legal liability that can lead to,” says Edelson. “If Trump says things that are wrong, that are maligning people, he could open himself up to legal liability.

“The big problem is his tweets don’t seem to be vetted by anybody. It’s just he’s flying by the seat of his pants — and he can say almost anything.”

The attorney predicts Trump’s unvarnished and unvetted tweet style will lead to him being sued for defamation.

“The best example of [his personal attacks via Twitter] is when women were coming forward during the presidential campaign and claiming that he had sexually assaulted them,” he continues. “Trump got triggered and made the types of comments that he’s prone to making, and called them liars and all of these things. And just recently… one of the [women] filed a defamation suit against him for that.”

“That’s a big problem if you’ve got a sitting president who is acting in a way that they’re exposing themselves to lawsuits. Because being the president’s an important job. And that’s what you should be focused on. Having to defend against lawsuits is an incredible distraction.”

“We all saw what happened with former President Clinton. In the end it became such a sideshow and ended up derailing years of his presidency,” he adds. “It does not seem to be in the interests of the administration for Trump to be going out of his way to make personal attacks and to be saying nasty things about people.

“And given how prolific he is on Twitter and how energized he gets about people it seems like there’s a fairly good chance that that’s going to lead to even more lawsuits against him.”

 

Instability

When diplomatic protocol is abandoned it’s not just politicians who have cause for alarm — Trump’s trigger-finger tweets have companies running scared of being on the receiving end of a Twitter lashing, with some reportedly making contingency plans in the event of suddenly finding themselves a public target, such as those singled out during his presidential campaign…

Trump’s tweet threat about taxing General Motors resulted in a 0.7 per cent drop in the company’s share price, for example. While Boeing’s stock dropped one per cent after he criticized the company via Twitter, and Lockheed Martin’s fell by two per cent following another attack.

“We are now in uncharted waters with an unusually unpredictable U.S. president who has, to put it mildly, an interesting style,” says Louis Rynsard, account director at PR and reputation management firm, SBC London. “While U.S. presidents’ statements have always had a market impact, advances in social media now mean this can happen instantaneously, and with the current state of play, is more likely to.”

But general business stability — even in the form of billions being wiped off companies’ share prices as a result of a single condemnatory tweet — pales into insignificance beside the risk of geopolitical ructions being sparked by Trump firing undiplomatic Twitter missives at foreign entities.

While it’s early days for the Trump presidency he has already been using tweets to pile public pressure on the Chinese government, for instance.

How China and any other nations he targets via Twitter respond to being under such a novel and unvarnished form of public attack from the Leader of the Free World very much remains to be seen.

Safe to say, diplomatic protocols exist for a reason: i.e. to mitigate the risk of international communication exchanges escalating from disagreement into out-and-out conflict. Tweets, by contrast, are both terribly brief and terribly public; in effect the polar opposite of traditional channels. That’s a massive cause for geopolitical concern.

The 140-character tweet has never been considered a great vehicle of nuance, but is arguably facing its toughest test yet under President Trump — who has amply demonstrated he’s capable of tweeting insults, tweeting vitriol, and tweeting in a way that weaponizes his supporters — especially when he feels under critical fire.

On the flip side, there’s far less evidence that the new U.S. president is capable of rising above the sound and the fury on social media — to keep things sounding, well, presidential.

Is his tone different, sure. But does a U.S. president Twitter-screaming in ALL CAPS come across as stable and in control? Not really. And does his aggressive style of tweeting already have a lot of people on edge? Absolutely.

“He doesn’t follow the typical protocols,” agrees Edelson. “Usually there’s a reason why presidents speak in certain ways, when they’re trying to deliver messages to the public. Him being informal through Twitter — and if you’re being generous say it’s in the manner of a fireside chat — is fine, except it’s such a different form.

“And there’s no way to tell, for sure, that it’s him who’s actually writing these tweets.”

“It is a natural instinct when under attack to mimic the attacker,” adds Rynsard, whose company advises CEOs and companies on reputation, strategy and corporate communications. “If they show braggadocio you come back with more. Before you know it, you’ll be going down the ‘Chicago Way’ — when they send one of yours to the infirmary, you attempt to send one of theirs to the morgue… My advice is: maintain your integrity and voice at all times.”

At the time of writing the Trump administration had not responded to questions about the president’s use of Twitter. We’ve also reached out to Twitter for comment.


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