Defense One

Hey, @Twitter, It’s Time to Talk about President Trump

The president’s amplification of the things he finds in his mentions is putting national security at risk.

Can we talk about the ongoing national security threat posed by President Trump’s Twitter feed, @jack?

We all know how much President Trump likes to tweet, and how he enthusiastically engages his Twitter followers, reads his mentions, and retweets the links he finds there. It was all fun and games when he was a reality star, even a presidential candidate. But the president’s engagement with his Twitter feed has real-world consequences, and it is posing a serious risk to America’s security.

Let’s unpack this. Through his Twitter engagement, the president finds his way to a variety of websites, including far-right ones that his aides would probably prefer he stay away from. And while a given human might have a rather small chance of drawing Trump’s eye, the existence of Twitter bots allow any sufficiently motivated person or team to boost their chances of placing a message before the American president. (Because Twitter can't, or won’t, police its users, a significant proportion of them — estimates range from 9 to 15 percent — are bots.) In one recent month, the president's 10 most-engaged followers — those who tweet the most at him — included five confirmed bots and three suspected bots.

Further, we know that foreign adversaries closely monitor the president's Twitter use. We know that such adversaries, particularly Russia, control armies of bots that they can use to flood Trump’s Twitter feed. Should he retweet one of these messages, it becomes an official statement of the president of the United States. And as we have seen over the past few days, his tweets have serious international consequences.

The State Department has warned the White House that the president's retweeting of anti-Muslim propaganda is increasing the risk of attack to U.S. citizens overseas. This is not an idle risk. Back in 2011, anti-Muslim social media sparked the protests and violence that lead to the storming of the U.S. embassy in Egypt the same day as the attacks on Benghazi. It is one thing when these hateful messages are spread by private citizens, but totally another when they are shared by the president.

The president's anti-Muslim tweets have furthered a trans-Atlantic rift with America's closest ally, the United Kingdom. When he retweeted videos put out by the deputy head of Britain First, a far-right, ultra-nationalist group, UK Prime Minister May condemned the tweets immediately, leading the president to attack her personally (and accidentally tagging a private citizen with a similar Twitter handle). This is unprecedented.

The information Trump receives from his feed paints a picture of a world on the brink of a race war, hyping fear and xenophobia. It is a world where every immigrant is a criminal, every Muslim is a terrorist — a world decidedly at odds with the real one.

How long before someone tries to troll the president into thinking that a national security crisis is occurring? Or worse, that a hacker takes over the president’s account and starts spreading fake news. It’s not as if the president’s account is totally secure. Remember when the @AP feed got hacked and we thought the White House was under attack? Remember when fake news suggested that Kim Jung-Un was evacuating Pyongyang in preparation for an attack? We could experience a real-life War of the Worlds situation.

It’s one thing if, as private citizens, we see the occasional piece of fake news. But when the most powerful person on the planet sees something in his mentions, his reaction has consequences for us all. We already know he’s an impulsive, volatile, escalatory person. How are you going to feel, @jack, if Trump tries to launch a "retaliatory" strike on North Korea for an attack that didn't occur? Or someone tweets from Trump’s account that he’s launched one already, and draws a North Korean response? The primacy of Twitter’s terms of service seems weak compared to how much harder it makes the jobs of everyone in our national-security agencies who are trying to keep the president in the box.

The president's Twitter access poses a grave and ongoing national security threat, and it is only a matter of time until someone is seriously hurt or killed because of it.