On Tuesday, Twitter released a blog post detailing how politicians, unlike nominal users, can sometimes skirt the platform’s rules for the sake of public transparency.
“Presently, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” the post reads. “However, if a Tweet from a world leader does violate the Twitter Rules but there is a clear public interest value to keeping the Tweet on the service, we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content.”
“We want to make it clear today that the accounts of world leaders are not above our policies entirely,” the post continues. “[Some] areas will result in enforcement action for any account on our service (without consideration of the potential public interest value in allowing the Tweet to remain visible behind a notice). This includes “promotion of terrorism, threats of violence against an individual, posting private information and sharing intimate photos without another person’s consent, child sexual exploitation and the encouraging or promoting self-harm.”
Essentially, Twitter wants to have their cake and eat it too. It wants everyone to believe there are no special privileges on the platform, assuring users rules will apply fairly, even to known political actors, yet they can arbitrarily deem a tweet to be “within the public interest” to keep it up without any appeals process or punishment. According to recent statements Twitter provided to The Verge, a compromise was announced that offending tweets would come “blacked out with a gray box that users have to click through in order to see the content” where “you will not be able to like, reply, share, or retweet” the content. However, Twitter admits it hasn’t used this feature even once so far.
Recently, arguments over social media fairness made it to the Democratic debate stage, where Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), sparred over whether the president should be banned from Twitter. “Here we have Donald Trump, who has 65 million Twitter followers and is using that platform as the president of the United States to openly intimidate witnesses, to threaten witnesses, to obstruct justice, and he and his account should be taken down,” Harris said, demanding Warren make a pledge on banning Trump. “And so what I am saying is that it seems to me that you would be able to join me in saying the rule has to apply to Twitter the same way it does to Facebook.”
“Look, I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter,” Warren replied, pledging she’d join Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in rejecting direct big tech donations. “I want to push him out of the White House, that’s our job. Why is it that we have had laws on the books for antitrust for over a century, and yet for decades now, we’ve all called on how the big drug companies are calling the shots in Washington, how the gun industry, big tech — you know, we really need to address the elephant in the room, and that is how campaigns are financed. I think all of the rules should apply across the board. I don’t have a problem with that.”
“What I do have a problem with is that if we’re going to talk seriously about breaking up big tech, then we should ask if people are taking money from the big tech executives,” she continues. “If we’re going to talk seriously about breaking up big drug companies, we should ask if people are financing their campaigns by taking money from big drug executives. If we are going to talk about Wall Street and having some serious regulation over Wall Street, we should ask if people are funding their campaigns by taking money from those executives… You can’t go behind closed doors and take the money of these executives and then turn around and expect that these are the people who are actually finally going to enforce the laws.”
Moreover, these institutions simply have no obligation to enforce justice if there are no laws or consistent terms of service in the first place. Twitter can determine on their own what constitutes promoting terrorism, making violent threats, posting private information, whatever the case may be for requiring “enforcement action”. Thus far, we’ve only seen a minor case of the president’s content being removed and that was via copyright claim for posting a bloody meme about Nickleback. The idea the most powerful and controversial politician in the world hasn’t got dirt is just laughable, even if you’re a supporter who actually enjoys his shitpost behavior.
Across several years of unhinged twittering, there are countless other examples of the president’s incitement of violence, threatening the freedom of speech of politicians and whistleblowers with calls for treason arrests and other “big consequences”, labeling members of the press terms like “scum,” “fake news,” and “enemies of the people”, racist tirades against “The Squad”, issuing nuclear threats against specific countries and leaders with “fire and fury”, among others which require an extensive backlog.
If there is any man who has violated Twitter’s policies, it’s Trump, the most popular user on the entire platform. “Context matters,” the blog reminds us. “As noted above, direct interactions with fellow public figures and/or commentary on political and foreign policy issues would likely not result in enforcement.” This obtuse view would be remarkable if we didn’t follow the money and public interests which carve out special status for representatives. So while Sen. Harris does bring up a fair point of a two-tier system at play, she doesn’t help by framing the issue as a single man’s misdeeds — her concern would be better directed at the unaccountable system which enables him.
In recent months, Facebook has at least made the appearance of trying to strengthen our online due process rights. Through the establishment of a Facebook Supreme Court, a new arbitration body issuing binding resolutions on content moderation which can overrule the whims of even CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the platform looks to decentralize its terms of service model into a more democratic process. In comparison to this independent 11 to 40 member Oversight Board which will be handling content takedowns, appeals and recommendations for changes in both the company and consumer interest, Twitter’s approach just looks like the same old exercise in unearned trust to our closed-door corporate overlords and their advertisers.
This isn’t meant to excuse Facebook as the good guys here — it appears that they too will stop short of applying this new democratized standard to politicians. As of Tuesday, Facebook announced it would still allow community standards to be violated because it considers “newsworthy” political speech important. “It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications. “I know some people will say we should go further, that we are wrong to allow politicians to use our platform to say nasty things or make false claims, but imagine the reverse: Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say? I don’t believe it would be.”