The tweets of prominent politicians such as President Trump will now be governed by a separate set of rules than average users, Twitter announced on Thursday.
The platform is rolling out new criteria for government officials who violate Twitter’s guidelines, which formalizes a process for preserving tweets that are deemed to be of “public interest.”
“In the past, we’ve allowed certain Tweets that violated our rules to remain on Twitter because they were in the public’s interest, but it wasn’t clear when and how we made those determinations,” the company said in a blog post.
When President Trump tweeted a pro wrestling GIF in 2017 that was seen by many members of the media as encouraging violence against them, Twitter took no action. The same went for a 2018 tweet in which Trump threatened North Korea—a nation of 25 million people—with nuclear war. Certainly, tweets have been deleted or accounts suspended over lesser threats of violence.
Twitter previously stated that it assesses Trump’s tweets based on their “newsworthiness” when asked why it has never suspended him. Now, the company is formalizing a policy that says government officials (including incumbents and people running for office) who are verified with more than 100,000 followers may skirt its rules.
Egregious tweets will be reviewed by a “cross-functional” tribunal of Twitter trust and safety, legal, public policy, and regional staff, who will decide if they’re worth keeping on the platform—or, as Twitter says, in the public’s interest. Direct threats of violence or incitements of violence against an individual are “unlikely” to be categorized this way, according to Twitter, and a user would be asked to delete those tweets.
The rule technically leaves room for tweets that violate the platform’s policies to be deleted, but a Twitter spokesperson would not comment on whether we’d see an uptick in punitive actions against public figures with volatile Twitter presences, such as President Trump.
Tweets that are determined as being of public interest will remain up with a customized disclaimer that users will have to click through to view. The notice will change depending on the rule that’s been violated. Once a notice has been attached to a tweet, that user will not be able to appeal the decision, said Twitter’s spokesperson.
Twitter’s reasoning for the change seems to rest on its self-determination as being a place for public conversation. The company wrote in Thursday’s blog post:
Serving the public conversation includes providing the ability for anyone to talk about what matters to them; this can be especially important when engaging with government officials and political figures. By nature of their positions these leaders have outsized influence and sometimes say things that could be considered controversial or invite debate and discussion. A critical function of our service is providing a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable.
It added that preserving these tweets “will allow others to hold the government official, candidate for public office, or appointee accountable for their statements.” Others, certainly, but not Twitter.
This interpretation of Twitter as a place that “serves the public” loosely mirrors an argument made in a 2017 civil liberties case by a group of people who sued Trump for blocking them on Twitter. They accused the president of violating their First Amendment rights by suppressing dissent in a “designated public forum.” A federal court ruled last year that Trump cannot block users and was ordered to unblock the plaintiffs, which he later did.
Twitter has yet to implement the new rule, but when it does, it will undoubtedly be met with criticism from all sides. The company would not comment on whether we’ll see an uptick in politicians being asked to delete tweets that violate its guidelines and do not qualify as public interest.
What this ultimately means is that Trump and other public figures who openly trade in insults and attacks on social media will likely never face the same consequences as the average user, and perhaps now have even less of a reason to comply with Twitter’s rules, as long as the company sees it as being of public interest.
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