“Please delete those tweets,” the widower begged in a letter last week to Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey. “My wife deserves better.”
Yes, Twitter, Lori Klausutis certainly does deserve better, nearly two decades after she died in a tragic accident that has morphed into a macabre and continuing nightmare for her husband, Timothy Klausutis.
The boogeyman plunging him and the family of his late wife into the very worst of memory holes is a conspiracy-theory-loving, twitchy-fingered and often shameless tweeter who also happens to be the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
“President Trump on Tuesday tweeted to his nearly 80 million followers alluding to the repeatedly debunked falsehood that my wife was murdered by her boss, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough. The son of the president followed and more directly attacked my wife by tweeting to his followers as the means of spreading this vicious lie,” wrote Mr. Klausutis, in a letter sent to Mr. Dorsey on Thursday that I obtained over the weekend.
“I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the president of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.” (You can read the letter in full here.)
Mr. Klausutis deserves an answer from Mr. Dorsey, who has the unenviable task of sorting out what is perhaps unsortable, which is to say, the ugly heart of Twitter’s most famous customer. While sources close to the company said executives had been trying to figure out what to do over the weekend, the company has at this writing been silent about this latest controversy involving Mr. Trump’s appalling and rule-breaking Twitter habit.
This episode is not unlike other infamous stories floating around social media, like the inhumane speculation about the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer, Seth Rich, or the ocean of nasty misinformation about the murders of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary that got Alex Jones deservedly thrown off several platforms.
But this mess is perhaps the high tide of that endless spew of toxic bile because it is being relentlessly amped up by the leader of the free world.
Tweeting misinformation is not new for Mr. Trump, who uses the service as his political cudgel to govern, campaign, wage petty digital wars and, more recently, peddle dangerous medical advice about Covid-19. All of this Twitter has allowed, because it has deemed even the most inane of the president’s utterances as “newsworthy.”
At least Mr. Trump is consistent in his lowering of the bar. As the number of Americans who have died from the coronavirus approached 100,000, the president declined to address the virus’s tragic toll and chose instead to keep up the series of tweets about Ms. Klausutis, all aimed at attacking Mr. Scarborough, who is now a high-profile MSNBC host.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Scarborough have been engaged in a very public brawl for a long time, but it turned heinous when the president decided to tweet the much-debunked and vile conspiracy theory about Ms. Klausutis’s death. In reality, she had an “undiagnosed heart condition, fell and hit her head on her desk at work,” wrote her husband in the letter to Twitter, but Mr. Trump ignored those facts.
When Mr. Scarborough’s co-host and wife, Mika Brzezinski, addressed the issue on the air and on Twitter, calling for the platform to ban Mr. Trump from the service, all hell broke loose. Some claimed First Amendment rights for the president (even though Twitter is a private company and not a public square), while others correctly pointed out that Twitter often blocks or bans users for much lesser offenses. Others who simply abhor Mr. Trump or Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski used the situation to bash their preferred bugbear.
But, hate them or not, the Trump-Scarborough duo matters less here: They are both famous and have to suffer the slings and arrows of that trade, even if Mr. Trump is falsely accusing Mr. Scarborough of an affair and murder.
The real issue is the very serious collateral damage of this fight, which is the post-mortem libel of Ms. Klausutis and the ensuing suffering of her husband and family. They are the victims, of Mr. Trump and of Twitter’s inability to manage its troubled relationship with him.
The company tends to be hands-off when a Trump controversy erupts, relying on a tenet that he is a public figure and also that it cannot sort out what is truth and a lie and is therefore better off letting its community argue it out. While that might work when it comes to some issues, it has broken down here.
How to fix it is the digital equivalent of a Gordian knot, except there is no cybersword of Alexander the Great to slice it in half. Banning Mr. Trump outright, the most extreme move, seems to be a nonstarter, given Mr. Dorsey’s belief that less is more when it comes to governing. While it worked when Mr. Jones was tossed off, a move that Mr. Dorsey came to last among the social media giants, doing the same to Mr. Trump would be quite different.
While I had thought throwing Mr. Trump off Twitter was not the worst idea — after all, what would the president do without his raging addiction to Twitter? — I have come to believe that a Trump ban would be pointless and too drastic. The firestorm it would set off would alone be disastrous for Twitter to manage and probably come with deep financial repercussions. If you think that is not a good enough reason, I invite you to visit the reality of living as a public company in the digital age.
Another solution being discussed inside Twitter is to label the tweets as false and link to myriad high-quality information and reporting that refute the tweets’ sinister insinuations. Sources told me that after initial hesitance in dealing with Mr. Trump’s tweets about Ms. Klausutis, the company has accelerated work on a more robust rubric around labeling and dealing with such falsehoods.
Again, top company executives hope that this placement of truth against lies will serve to cleanse the stain. I think this is both naïve and will be ineffective — most people’s experience tracks with that old axiom: A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still getting its shoes on.
In the digital age, that would be to the moon and back 347 times, of course, which is why I am supportive of the suggestion Mr. Klausutis makes in his letter to simply remove the offending tweets.
While the always thoughtful Mr. Dorsey has said previously that he has to hew to Twitter’s principles and rules, and that the company cannot spend all of its time reacting, its approach up until now results only in Twitter’s governance getting gamed by players like Mr. Trump, in ways that are both shameless and totally expected.
So why not be unexpected with those who continue to abuse the system? Taking really valuable one-off actions can be laudable since they make an example of someone’s horrid behavior as a warning to others. While it is impossible to stop the endless distribution of a screenshot of the tweets, taking the original ones down would send a strong message that this behavior is not tolerated.
Or, if he must, Mr. Dorsey could set up an independent content board as Facebook has recently done, which could take on thorny questions like this and remove them from his purview. This might seem like a cop-out, but putting these questions up for a more measured debate might be the exit that the company needs to focus on the rest of its business.
Perhaps such a board could include Mr. Klausutis, who might know more than most people about the price of all this.
“I have mourned my wife every day since her passing. I have tried to honor her memory and our marriage,” he wrote to Mr. Dorsey, with the kind of enduring dignity that would be nice to see more of from our leaders. “There has been a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died. I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, unfortunately it is the verifiable truth. Because of this, I have struggled to move forward with my life.”
It’s long past time to let him do that and, most of all, to let Lori Klausutis rest in peace.
Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing New York Times Opinion writer.