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Twitter says Trump’s North Korea tweets don’t violate its policy against violent threats

North Korea saw a Trump tweet as a "clear declaration of war." Twitter saw it as newsworthy.

President Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Prime Minister Of Spain Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

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.

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.

One popular response to Twitter’s rationale was to point out that the company’s application of its own policy seems “inconsistent and biased.”

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:

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.