Donald and the Tweety Bird: The Ethical Analysis of President Trump’s False Twitter Claims

by anoifdk on April 28, 2017 - 12:11pm

Social media has reshaped the way information is transmitted throughout the world. Websites such as Twitter or Facebook promote the global spreading of information instantaneously, a phenomenon that could not occur prior to the Internet. Famous people, by definition, possess an especially vast audience and this is reflected in amount of engagement their online accounts receive. Because of this, the question of whether or not influential figures have the moral obligation to use social media with care in order to not spread misinformation must be considered. Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, occupies what is unmistakably one of the most important positions in the country. Unfortunately, he is recognized for regularly tweeting false claims. On March 14th, 2017,  Donald Trump posted photos of a Fox News report stating that 235 thousand new jobs were created in the month of February, after his inauguration (@realDonaldTrump, “JOBS…”). Prior to this, on March 4th, he accused former president Barack Obama of surveilling his phone: “[h]ow low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. [...]” (@realDonaldTrump, “How low…”) When studying the relationship between power and morality in the social media age, Donald Trump’s tweets are interesting case studies. From a teleological perspective, the tweets are in fact dangerous and unethical because they do not provide positive outcomes.

A strong deontological argument can be made in favour of defending free speech and protecting Trump's right to express anything he wishes. Censorship does not pass the categorical imperative: —“[a]ct only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Waurechen). Although Trump’s tweets are controversial, his thoughts are just as valid as any other person because, as a human being, he is subject to the same maxims. If Trump is to have limitations placed upon him, those limitations must also be followed by everyone for consistency. Freedom of speech is especially important in the realm of politics because differing opinions allow democracy to flourish: “[...]a decent regime of freedom of speech must provide a principled and strong form of protection for political speech” (Shiffrin 285). However, the framework of deontology itself does not function regarding this particular situation because another important maxim, that of honestly, contradicts free speech and prevents the rational reasoning that is the foundation of deontology. Trump cannot be free to utter lies and be truthful at the once; the two concepts are mutually exclusive and directly oppositional.

The dire consequences of Donald Trump’s erroneous tweets can be fully analyzed from a teleological perspective which is an outcome based ethical framework. Specifically, utilitarianism, a subset of teleology, states that an action is ethical if it “bring[s] the greatest happiness (or pleasure) to the greatest number” (Merrill 21). This framework is particularly effective for arguments revolving around social media because of the vast number of active users on these websites. Given Twitter’s interconnected nature, information shared by Trump is disseminated to over 28 million followers, as well as many others via retweets and sharing over additional social media outlets. It is important to recognize that when one’s voice is far reaching, they have a responsibility to be accurate when sharing on social media because their words have the power to sway: “[...] a proliferation of studies claim digital media to be a potentially powerful tool for spreading democracy, encouraging political participation, carrying forward social justice and empowering civil society” (Wang 128). This is especially important on Twitter because of the platform’s 140 character limit on each message. This can quickly decontextualize a tweet and oversimplify the message, and despite any positive intentions, lead to negative consequences. A public’s interpretation of the tweet, as well as their reaction cannot be predicted beforehand, especially if the message is unclear. Therefore, tweeting something that is false to begin with cannot lead to favourable outcomes. For example, Trump’s tweet regarding the declining unemployment rates misleadingly alludes to his government being responsible for the shift, however, according to CNN, “[i]t's a good jobs report, but he hasn't done anything yet” (Long). The economy is still being affected by the Obama administration's policies and taking credit for their work only serves to increase Trump’s ratings, a personal gain rather than a national one. Although the tweet may benefit Trump personally, he is doing a disservice to those he is elected to represent.

The accusatory tweet about Obama surveilling him non-consensually is especially problematic because it falsely accuses the former government of a potential crime. According to BBC, FBI Director James Comey stated that “the claim was false and had asked the justice department to publicly reject it” (“Trump wiretapping”). Although it is important to highlight the Obama administration’s potential abuse of power, making such a dramatic claim without concrete evidence serves merely as a malicious attempt to negatively alter perceptions of the Democratic Party. The message is manipulative and is designed to appeal to the public’s sense of justice and a universal right to privacy. Trump is essentially robbing his audience of their agency when spreading falsehoods by preventing them from engaging in informed conversation. Any debate based on false claims made by president Trump is useless since the foundation of the conversation itself is incorrect: “[...] rational human thinkers need access to other thinkers under conditions in which their mental contents may be known with some degree of precision” (Shiffrin 293). If discussion around a world leader’s words cannot occur, democracy, and subsequently every person within a democratic society, undoubtedly suffers.

From a teleological perspective, Donald Trump’s inaccurate use of Twitter is highly problematic for democracy and induces negative outcomes. Since Trump accepted the responsibility of power through election, he is the representative of the people and is responsible for using his power for the gain of his population. His outrageous or incorrect tweets are dangerous for democracy because they inhibit rational argumentation and provoke emotional responses from citizens. Although Trump is free to post as he wishes on social media, he is doing so at the expense of the people and that makes his actions immoral.

 

Works Cited

Long, Heather. "How much credit should Trump get for jobs?." CNN Money, 10 Mar. 2017, http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/10/news/economy/donald-trump-february-jobs/.

Merrill, John C. “Overview: Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics,” 345-LPH-MS: Media Ethics. Edited by Sarah Waurechen, Eastman, 2017, pp. 13-42   

@realDonaldTrump (Donald Trump). "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!" Twitter, 4 March 2017, 4:02 a.m. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/837996746236182529

@realDonaldTrump (Donald Trump). "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!" Twitter, 14 March 2017, 8:00 a.m. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/841665325682827265

Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. "A Thinker-Based Approach to Freedom of Speech." Constitutional Commentary, vol. 27, no. 2, Fall2011, pp. 283-307. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url&db=aph&AN=69735725&site=ehost-live.

"Trump wiretapping claim: Did Obama bug his successor?." BBC News, 20 Mar. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39172635.

Wang, Xinyuan. “Social Media, Politics and Gender.” Social Media in Industrial China, 1st ed., vol. 6, UCL Press, London, 2016, pp. 127–155, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1g69xtj.10.

Waurechen, Sarah. "Ethical Rationalism." Media Ethics: 345-LPH-MS, Marianopolis College, 26 Jan. 2017, Westmount. Lecture.

 

Comments

I like the way you breakdown deontology as a useful ethical framework, pointing to the conflict between freedom and truthfulness. I also find your view on the relevancy of utilitarianism in a modern social media era where actions can affect greater numbers than ever before quite interesting, I have never thought about that. Ironically, social media can collapse on itself by facilitating mass miscommunication, such as in your example about Trump’s tweet on declining job rates, which were really produced by the Obama administration.

While both deontological and teleological frameworks have not been effective within the context of a modern presidency, I would like to discuss the merits of the virtue ethical framework. Unlike deontology and utilitarianism, virtue ethics places great emphasis on the self as a moral agent. The school of thought suggests that individuals learn moral behaviour through observation of other people’s behaviour, naturally developing a personal moral compass. Considering the mass influence attributed to the POTUS (made even greater through the emergence of social media), Trump has a moral obligation to learn from his predecessors and develop his character accordingly. While each president is unique and possesses their own individual qualities, a president must sacrifice a part of that and conform to precedent to serve the country as best as possible. Perhaps this is where Donald Trump has gone wrong: he embraces individuality to the extreme. Trump has essentially reinvented the wheel when it comes to the presidency, whether it be through his petty tweet wars, hostile relationship with the mainstream media, and racist political rhetoric. While his extreme sense of individualism sparked the hearts and souls of American voters, it is dangerous when left to run free without any ethical framework to guide it. Virtue ethics may be the optimal ethical theory for Trump because it is conducive to a self-oriented, individualistic mindset. If Donald Trump finds success in cultivating a political persona, then so be it – at least let it be done through an self-centric ethical framework, such as virtue ethics.