The feud between Twitter and Donald Trump keeps escalating. Days after Twitter drew the president’s ire by applying a fact-checking label to one of his tweets—prompting a retaliatory executive order from Trump—the platform went even further. On Friday morning, it flagged a Trump tweet for violating its rules and implemented measures to keep it from going viral, while keeping the tweet up in the name of public interest. It’s a move that attempts to strike a thoughtful balance. But it also gets Twitter deeper into a messy conflict that there may be no easy way out of.
The tweet that finally crossed Twitter’s line came just after midnight on Friday morning, in response to the escalating riots in Minneapolis following the apparent murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer. Trump suggested that he might deploy the National Guard and warned that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase attributed to Walter Headley, a Miami police chief in the 1960s who bragged about using “police brutality” against rioters. Twitter soon covered up Trump’s tweet with a label warning that it violated a rule against glorifying violence. Users had to click through to see the contents, and couldn’t reply to it, like it, or retweet it without adding comment.
While Twitter first suggested it could take such a step nearly a year ago, this was the first time it applied a label to a presidential tweet. Predictably, the move only enraged Trump and his allies more. It also didn’t satisfy many Trump critics, who have long called for Twitter to take stronger steps, like suspending his account. But while it may seem like a half-measure, Twitter’s decision is less arbitrary, and more logical, than it might appear.
Understanding what Twitter did requires making sense of the interaction of two separate company policies. First, Twitter found that Trump’s tweet violated its rule against “glorification of violence,” which targets content that could inspire real-world violent acts, especially against minorities. Ordinarily Twitter policy would dictate the removal of the tweet and temporary suspension of the offending account, neither of which happened to Trump. That’s where the second policy comes in. Last June, Twitter carved out a “public interest exception” in which tweets that violate the rules can stay up, subject to a notice like the one placed on Trump’s tweet this morning. The exception only applies to government officials or candidates for office with more than 100,000 followers and verified accounts. According to the policy, the goal is to flag harmful material while preserving Twitter as “a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable.” Twitter still reserves the right to take down tweets that it deems too dangerous to preserve, as it recently did with coronavirus-related disinformation tweeted by the presidents of Brazil and Venezuela.
So Twitter determined that Trump broke a rule, but his tweet also qualified for the public interest exception. The result: a paradox in which Twitter appears simultaneously to be singling Trump out and giving him special treatment. If the average user had tweeted the same thing as Trump, the tweet may never have been noticed, let alone flagged. At the same time, if a tweet like that by a normal user was flagged, the company would most likely delete it entirely, and maybe even suspend the user’s account. Trump’s status as president, in other words, pushes the platform toward an enforcement that’s both stricter and more lenient.
But there’s a counterintuitive logic to treating public officials differently. To begin with, there are fewer of them, so it’s easier. “The starting point on this is having a clear, principled handle on public figures,” says Sam Gregory, program director at Witness, a tech-focused human rights organization. “That should be the easiest place to start.” Gregory also pointed out that the words of public officials have the most potential to cause actual real-world harm. That makes Twitter’s previous hands-off approach—and Facebook’s continued refusal to take any action on statements by politicians—especially questionable. “In a weird way, they’ve avoided handling the people who have the largest megaphone,” Gregory says. “Often, [incitement to violence] is coming from the top. It’s coming from senior figures in India when you’ve got anti-Muslim violence, senior figures in Burma when you’ve got anti-Rohingya violence, and it’s coming seemingly from senior figures in the United States.”
At the same time, Gregory says that activists around the world have argued for something like Twitter’s compromise position. “If you take down either false or harmful content, there’s no way of fighting back against it and counter-intervening—it’s sort of invisible,” he says.
Twitter is attempting to strike a delicate balance between two conflicting values. “There’s newsworthiness, there’s interest in knowing what he’s thinking and knowing what he’s saying right as he’s thinking and saying it,” says Tiffany C. Li, a visiting professor at Boston University School of Law. “On the other hand, there’s concern that some of these tweets may have actually harmful real-world implications. When is it newsworthy enough to keep up, versus when is it harmful enough to take down?”
There’s no perfect answer here, but Twitter may have found the least bad approach to a nearly impossible situation.
“This is the most effective way of Twitter balancing the public interest of constituents knowing what their president says and believes, versus reducing the harm where that speech is potentially dangerous,” says Evelyn Douek, an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Douek cautioned against expecting a platform like Twitter to completely solve the problems of political discourse. “There’s a real democratic tension in a private company that has no democratic accountability or legitimacy deciding what a duly elected public official can or cannot say.”
While Trump and some of his allies have accused Twitter of violating his right to free speech, Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an email that Twitter’s treatment of Trump’s tweet was an exercise of the company’s own First Amendment rights. As a private company, of course, Twitter is free to make its own rules. The public interest exception, Eidelman added, is “also good policy: labeling posts of public officials, especially the President, rather than deleting them, better informs the public and preserves open debate.”
Still, Twitter’s newly enforced policy leaves some tough questions unanswered. The most obvious is whether the company can enforce it consistently. Its action on Trump’s “shooting” tweet certainly fits within the four corners of company policy, but the timing is suggestive. The policy has been on the books for nearly a year, but lay dormant until the day after Trump targeted Twitter with an executive order. (A Twitter spokesperson pointed me to the company’s policies, but didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking about the timing of the action.)
“Flagging it is a political move,” says Li. “Twitter is taking a stand not just about the issues, but also taking a stand on how much power they have in order to govern the speech on Twitter’s platform.”
That’s understandable, perhaps even admirable, but it also opens the company to charges of selective enforcement. It took Republicans no time at all to find recent examples of other public officials seeming to violate the glorification of violence rule. Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who will ultimately be in charge of implementing part of Trump’s social media executive order, asked on Twitter why the company’s policy apparently doesn’t cover recent tweets from Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, in support of armed Jihad against Israel.
Twitter also hasn’t satisfied the crowd who would prefer to see Trump simply kicked off. The logic behind the public interest exception explains why Twitter prefers not to remove posts once they’ve already gone up, but not whether someone like Trump is entitled to use the platform in perpetuity. Don’t expect Twitter to open that can of worms any time soon.
That it has the power to do so, though—in fact, it already happened, for a few minutes—gets at the real problem, one no moderation policy can ever adequately solve: Because a small number of private companies control the most important channels of online communication, the decisions they make have quasi-governmental force, even though they aren’t bound by the First Amendment. Trump seems to understand this: It’s why he rages so desperately against Twitter’s actions, but does so on Twitter itself.
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