Twitter has taken the rare step of publicly commenting on one of President Trump’s tweets — only to declare, to the chagrin of many users, that its policy against tweets containing violent threats isn’t so cut-and-dried when the threats in question come from the president of the United States.
The move comes in the wake of Trump’s recent controversial statements against North Korea, including a tweet in which he suggested that the country “won’t be around much longer.” The tweet drew ire from the North Korean government, which responded by deeming Trump’s statement “a clear declaration of war.”
The president’s use of Twitter has been controversial for months; many observers have repeatedly suggested that the company should ban Trump for violating its stated policies regarding abuse, harassment, and violent threats. Twitter has largely refused to publicly entertain such an idea, generally sticking to its standard response, which is that the company does not comment on individual accounts.
On Monday night, however, Twitter issued a statement from its official policy account in response to a barrage of pleas from users who were concerned that the president’s tweets could incite nuclear war.
THREAD: Some of you have been asking why we haven't taken down the Tweet mentioned here: https://t.co/CecwG0qHmq 1/6— Twitter PublicPolicy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether Tweets violate our Rules 2/6— Twitter PublicPolicy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
Among the considerations is "newsworthiness" and whether a Tweet is of public interest 3/6— Twitter PublicPolicy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
This has long been internal policy and we'll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it. We need to do better on this, and will 4/6— Twitter PublicPolicy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
Twitter is committed to transparency and keeping people informed about what's happening in the world 5/6— Twitter PublicPolicy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
We’ll continue to be guided by these fundamental principles 6/6— Twitter PublicPolicy (@Policy) September 25, 2017
In other words, Twitter’s official response is that because Trump’s tweet about North Korea is newsworthy, both it and the president can stay.
The backlash was basically immediate — in part because Twitter has a long track record of selectively enforcing its own policies
To its credit, Twitter’s statement did acknowledge that the company’s “internal policy” regarding the relative newsworthiness of a tweet isn’t currently mentioned anywhere in the publicly posted abuse policy. But the policy is still fairly clear and unconditional: “We do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice,” it states.
The policy also defines a few specifics regarding violent tweets in particular: “You may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.“ Though President Trump’s threat to essentially destroy North Korea in the tweet under discussion is oblique, it requires a close reading to interpret as anything but a purposeful threat.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
One popular response to Twitter’s rationale was to point out that the company’s application of its own policy seems “inconsistent and biased.”
So, the tweet could be a threat from Trump, but because he's POTUS, it remains? Sounds inconsistent and biased.— Mike Rana ✈️ (@michaelranaii) September 25, 2017
Noted technology expert Anil Dash responded by arguing that the concept of “newsworthiness” — the main criteria cited in Twitter’s response as justification for allowing the tweet to remain (and, by extension, for Twitter to not ban Trump) — is itself ephemeral and confusing:
It would be ok to say, “Our policies were created with the assumption that no head of state would tweet violent threats”. We’d understand.— Anil Dash (@anildash) September 26, 2017
Can you articulate just what is off limits? I assume if I threatened to kill *one* North Korean person, I’d be rightly banned. But millions?— Anil Dash (@anildash) September 26, 2017
Of course, this isn’t the first time Twitter has come under fire for failing to be consistent in its enforcing its own abuse policy. Its repeated refusal to permanently ban noted white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke has led to sustained protest and outcry among users, and has driven at least one prominent feminist off the platform. There’s nothing new about Twitter’s reluctance to take action against “newsworthy” subjects.
What is new is the company’s articulation of newsworthiness as a factor. Twitter’s statement is arguably implying that Trump’s general newsworthiness, not the newsworthiness of a specific tweet, means the president and anything he might tweet are essentially preapproved to stay.