U.S. Markets closed

The Trump rule? World leaders that violate Twitter rules will get warning label

Julia Carrie Wong
Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Call it the Trump rule.

Twitter will attach a special label to tweets by major political figures if their content violates the site’s rules but the deleting of them is not in the public interest, the company said on Thursday.

Tweets affected by the new measure will remain on the site, but will not appear in searches or be recommended to users through any of Twitter’s algorithmic channels. When they do appear in a user’s timeline, they will be hidden behind an interstitial reading: “The Twitter Rules about abusive behavior apply to this Tweet. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain available.” Users can then click through to view the tweet if they desire.

The new policy is a major shift in Twitter’s efforts to balance its ideological commitment to free expression with user demands for improved enforcement of rules against harassment, hate speech and other toxic behavior.

The stakes of that fundamental challenge for any social media platform increased exponentially with the candidacy and eventual presidency of Donald Trump, whose use of Twitter combines the behavior of an anonymous troll with the power of 61.4 million followers and the Oval Office.

His reckless behavior on the platform has included threatening war against another country, arguably encouraging violence against news outlets, and amplifying racist misinformation by hate figures. Outcry over such actions forced Twitter in September 2017 to reveal a previously undisclosed “internal policy”, which it said allowed it to factor “newsworthiness” into determinations of whether content violated its rules.

Trump is not the only government official who could be affected by the new policy. Other political leaders have followed his lead in shifting their digital discourse toward the crude and obscene, including Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, who earlier this year tweeted a pornographic video in order to advance his homophobic agenda.

In a blogpost announcing the new policy, Twitter acknowledged that it “wasn’t clear when and how we made those determinations” of public interest. Under the new rubric, the company plans to make determinations by considering several factors including “the immediacy and severity of potential harm” from the tweet “with an emphasis on ensuring physical safety” and whether deleting the tweet would impede the ability of the public to hold the speaker accountable.

The policy will apply to government officials, candidates for elected office, and those who appear likely to assume a government official (ie a nominee for the US cabinet awaiting confirmation) if they have more than 100,000 Twitter followers and have a verified account.

A spokeswoman for Twitter said that the new policy would not change the process by which the company makes such determinations. She declined to comment on whether CEO Jack Dorsey would make the ultimate decision on tweets by world leaders such as Trump, but said that the head of the teams involved in such work was Vijaya Gadde, who leads Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety for Twitter.

The policy will not be applied retroactively, the company said.

Content moderation at a global scale has always been a struggle for social media platforms, but the advent of Trumpism and the embrace of xenophobia and white nationalism by political leaders around the world has forced the companies to embrace a more explicitly editorial role than they wanted.

Before Trump’s election, it was revealed that Mark Zuckerberg had decided that a Facebook post by the then candidate qualified as hate speech, but should not be removed due to “the value of political discourse”.

Republican politicians have repeatedly accused the major platform companies of bias against conservatism, largely without any evidence. On Wednesday, Reddit announced that it was “quarantining” the largest pro-Trump message board on the site following threats of violence toward police officers and public officials.