Trump almost started a nuclear war via Twitter

Elon Musk said Tuesday at a Financial Times conference that if it actually buys Twitter — Friday morning Musk tweeted that the deal was “temporarily suspended” – it will restore former President Donald Trump’s account. After the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, Trump was permanently suspended by Twitter for using it to incite violence.

Musk added that under his ownership, if users say something “destructive to the world, then maybe there should be a timeout, a temporary suspension, or that particular tweet should be made invisible. … I think if there are tweets that are fake and bad, those should either be deleted or made invisible, and a suspension, a temporary suspension, is appropriate, but not a permanent ban.

This standard, of course, is incredibly vague – anything and everything could be considered “destructive to the world” or “wrong and wrong”. As Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, pointed out, Musk’s words suggest he hasn’t given much thought to why the issue of content moderation on Twitter is so contentious:

The chilling fact is that no one knows what to do about the dangerous chain reaction that can occur when Twitter collides with world leaders in general, and Trump in particular.

Given that Trump could conceivably be re-elected president in 2024, we have to hope that someone on Twitter takes heed, rather than, as Musk is doing now, just blithely advocating ‘free speech’ with a few ad hoc restrictions. and unpredictable.

This is especially true because Mark Esper, Trump’s Secretary of Defense towards the end of his term, confirmed in his new book “A Sacred Oath” that Trump and Twitter could have teamed up to end civilization. human in January 2018.

Although largely forgotten by now, there was a strong chance that the United States and North Korea would go to war in the first year of the Trump administration. Retired military and diplomatic experts at the time estimated the odds at 20, 30, or even 50 percent.

Such a war could easily have become, as Trump ally Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, put it during the time of greatest danger, “one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization. It will be very, very brief. The end of it will see massive casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen. It will have biblical proportions.

When Trump took office in January 2017, US intelligence believed North Korea had made dozens of nuclear devices. In July 2017, the North Korean government successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the United States

It was this – the possibility that the United States was vulnerable to the nuclear sword of Damocles that we had hung over North Korea’s head for decades – that prompted Trump to proclaim in August that “ North Korea had better stop threatening the United States. They will be met with fire and fury such as the world has never seen. The following month, at the United Nations, Trump also declared that the United States could be compelled to “totally destroy North Korea”. The Rocket Man [i.e., North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] is on a suicide mission.

Trump then hopped on Twitter that month to proclaim that Kim was “obviously a lunatic” who “will be tested like never before!” He continued the same day, tweeting, “I just heard the Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at the UN If he echoes the thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer! “

Such furious aggressiveness from an American president would be alarming under any circumstances, but particularly concerned North Korea. Jeffrey Lewis, a longtime North Korea watcher and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, was so worried about Trump’s behavior that he wrote an entire speculative novel imagining how the president could accidentally start a nuclear war via a tweet.

“North Korea,” Lewis told me recently via a direct message on Twitter, “has a nuclear strategy that relies on the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons to repel an American invasion. an invasion is imminent, their plan – at least on paper – is to use nuclear weapons against US forces in South Korea and Japan to destroy all invading forces and shock the United States.

And the North Korean government, Lewis said, “doesn’t have the kind of high-tech global surveillance system that the United States has. Instead, they must rely on signs and indicators. We don’t really know what indicators they use, but we believe that one of the most important indicators the North Koreans rely on is the presence of military families in South Korea. The North Koreans believe that the United States would evacuate these families to safety before any invasion.

Such was the situation on January 3, 2018, when Trump tweeted: “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just said the ‘nuclear button is on his desk at all times.’ …I also have a nuclear button, but it’s a much bigger and more powerful button than his, and my button works!


Then President Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on January 2, 2018.

Screenshot: Twitter

Esper, then Secretary of the Army, learned later that month that Trump was about to order all US military dependents out of South Korea – announcing it on Twitter. “Kim would likely view an American evacuation as a prelude to conflict,” Esper writes in her book, echoing Lewis’s fears. “Would he strike first, targeting Seoul? … Could it be like the beginning of the First World War? … It was a dangerous chicken game, and with nuclear roosters no less.

Luckily for all of humanity, someone – Esper still has no idea who – “dissuaded the president from sending the tweet. … War averted.

What Twitter should do if Trump is president again is an extraordinary conundrum.

Esper has understandably remained anxious throughout his tenure in the Trump administration, with the war with North Korea always on his mind. “Who knew when another apocalyptic tweet might arrive?” he asks. “We had to be ready.”

However, Twitter was not and is not ready. What Twitter should do if Trump is president again is an extraordinary conundrum. Global leaders obviously have many ways to communicate with the world and the right to do so. But Twitter is unique in that it allows them – at least those who want to – to post proclamations without intermediaries or tips, just by taking their phone out of their pocket. And Trump is particularly erratic and reckless.

It would be nice if there was a universal policy on Twitter that addressed the danger of Trump and Twitter – perhaps no president and prime minister, especially those leading the nuclear powers, should be allowed to have Twitter accounts. They could still inflict death and destruction on the world on purpose, but this type of circuit breaker could make them less likely to do so by accident.

Or maybe Trump should be dealt with specifically, if he ever returns to the Oval Office. That wouldn’t be ideal, but then again, global thermonuclear war isn’t ideal either.

If nothing else, it would be nice to imagine that the people who run Twitter, whether it’s Musk or anyone else, have spent a lot of time thinking about the existential danger created by their bird app. But for now, there are few signs of that on the horizon. (Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he was aware of this story.)

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