Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube presences will all change hands
The twentieth amendment to the United States Constitution is perfectly clear: "The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January… and the terms of their successors shall then begin." It does not, however, say anything about Twitter or Facebook.
On Wednesday, amid all the other traditional pomp and pizzazz of inauguration day, presidential social media and online broadcast accounts previously run by President Donald Trump will be handed over to Joe Biden – whether Trump likes it or not.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat have all committed to switching official handles such as @POTUS ("President of the United States") and @WhiteHouse over to the incoming leader. Their previous incarnations will be archived for posterity.
"As President-elect Biden is sworn in on January 20, 2021, Twitter will facilitate the transfer of institutional White House Twitter accounts, including @WhiteHouse, @POTUS, @VP, @FLOTUS, and @PressSec," Twitter said.
"People will be able to watch the transition of power take place in real-time as accounts for the White House, President, Vice President, First Lady and White House Press Secretary inherit their new institutional usernames."
Yet in a time of open conflict between the White House and Silicon Valley, as well as open attempts by the sitting president to use the tools of his office to cling to power, this digital transfer of power is already fiercely contested, with Biden’s team accusing Twitter of giving him a raw deal.
"It looks like Trump is planning to leave office, but there is still a risk of having a president who refuses to leave the physical White House while corporate platforms transfer the digital White House to the incoming president," says Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University in New York who studies social media.
"There is the real potential of this country having duelling presidents who both occupy the White House in some respect."
There were few such fears in 2017, when Barack Obama handed the torch to Trump. Having innovated in 2009 by wiping George Bush’s White House website clean at 12:01pm on his own inauguration day, he set up a smooth transfer of online assets to his successor, who retained all of Obama’s official followers.
According to Colin Delany, a digital strategy consultant in Washington DC and editor of ePolitics.com, there is no inherent reason for the process to work any differently four years later.
"The same basic rules apply to social media channels that would apply to any other communications channel with the government," he says. "You’re handing over the computers, you’re handing over the printers, you’re handing over the motorcades… this is just like handing over the keys."
The situation is complicated, however, by the Trump administration’s refusal to play ball with Biden’s transition team, as well as its lax approach to preserving official records – which Delany describes as part of a "mob boss mentality".
The President’s advisers have been known to exchange official messages on encrypted services such as Signal, and have been sued for trying to preserve such chats as screenshots instead of giving full logs. Reportedly, some staffers were even forced to fish through Trump’s waste paper basket and tape his letters back together after he ripped them up.
When Twitter banned his personal account, @realDonaldTrump, he tried to evade the ban by repeating and continuing the same statements from his official accounts, whose abilities were then limited by the company.
There is no chance of Trump holding on to such handles in this case, not least because he has been banned on Twitter, blocked from posting on Facebook and Instagram and had his channel frozen on YouTube.
Twitter’s ban is permanent, while YouTube extended its ban on Tuesday night for one more week. Facebook and Instagram’s freeze is "indefinite"; a spokesman said last week that there were "no plans to lift it".
There has been no change to the status of the President's Facebook and Instagram accounts. That report is false. The indefinite block we placed on the President's ability to post from those accounts remains in place and there are no plans to lift it. https://t.co/8L2KnuLrCa
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) January 16, 2021
Regardless, Facebook and Instagram will duplicate Trump’s official Potus ("President of the United States") and White House accounts and giving them to Biden, while converting the old ones into inert archives. Snapchat will grant the "whitehouse" username to Biden’s team at 12:01pm, while YouTube will hand over the White House channel.
But the companies have diverged on the matter of followers and subscribers. Snapchat and YouTube will port the White House’s following (803,000 and 1.9m respectively) directly to the new-look Biden accounts.
Facebook and Instagram will go further, giving the new versions not only their old followers but also those of Biden himself. That makes for a total of about 13.5m followers on the @POTUS Facebook page, and more than 22m followers of the White House on Instagram.
“We’re following the same procedures we used during the transfer between the Obama and Trump Administrations when President-elect Biden is sworn into office," a spokeswoman said.
Twitter has refused to do so the same. "These institutional accounts will not automatically retain the followers from the prior administration," the company said, adding that it would show in-app alerts to users who already follow presidential accounts or Biden’s existing accounts.
It gave no rationale, and declined to answer questions from the Telegraph about its reasoning.
That has angered Biden’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, who attacked the company’s divergence from other networks and argued that it is treating the two candidates unfairly.
On inaug day:
-FB is transferring @JoeBiden's followers over to POTUS
-Snap is handing us @WhiteHouse
-YT is giving us all of the @WhiteHouse Subs
-Twitter is starting us at zero…but recommended the President of the United States tag other accounts to encourage growth
— Rob Flaherty (@Rob_Flaherty) January 15, 2021
“If we don’t end the day with the 12 million followers that Donald Trump inherited from Barack Obama, then they have given us less than they gave Donald Trump, and that is a failure," he told Bloomberg last week.
He insisted that this was not about sour grapes, saying that Biden wanted to be able to easily communicate with all the people who had backed Donald Trump. "Joe Biden truly couldn’t care less about Twitter followers, but he does care about communicating with everyone in the country, whether they agree with him or not," Flaherty said.
It remains unclear exactly what will happen to the innards of these accounts – their private messages and drafts if they have any, along with any other data that would be accessible only to their holders. Archiving any such data officially falls to the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara); Facebook referred questions to that agency and the White House, while other companies declined to comment.
Still, just as people across the world were alarmed by the precedent set when all four companies banned a serving US president, Prof Grygiel is concerned that the same tech firms are executing a transfer of accounts whose pronouncements could in theory start wars.
"There is an incredible amount of federal power that is under the control of corporations and relies on their participation and effective transfer of power," they say. "It’s dangerous, as the government is no longer the gatekeeper of their own democratic process and all the mechanisms that allow for democracy to unfold."