Twitter’s Revised World Leader Policy is Still Sanctioned Bullying

05 04 19

Twitter is exploring ways to add a disclaimer or other context around Tweets from world leaders that break their terms of service but the company has chosen to leave up because of their supposed newsworthiness. Twitter’s head of legal, policy, and trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde explained: “One of the things we’re working really closely on with our product and engineering folks is, ‘How can we label that?’ How can we put some context around it so people are aware that that content is actually a violation of our rules and it is serving a particular purpose in remaining on the platform.”

It’s a frustrating move from Twitter, a company that has defended it’s choice to let world leaders tweet whatever they like, with no consideration of the consequences for a couple of years now. Twitter has only broken this rule once before, when they removed a tweet from Iran’s Supreme Leader that threatened author Salman Rushdie. It’s worth noting that the removal of the tweet still managed to make news, undercutting Twitter’s original argument.

Twitter’s policy, and the proposed change, is centered entirely around the powerful figures and doesn’t offer any protection to those harmed by these tweets. Whether we’re talking about President Trump, Iran’s Supreme Leader, or any two-bit dictator, they know exactly what they’re doing when they violate Twitter’s TOS. Their intention is to cause harm. Twitter has chosen the right of powerful figures to cause harm over the right of their targets to be protected from it.

Once upon a time the Internet promised to give everyone a voice. As Paul Bass, one of the earliest successful online journalists was fond of saying “Power of the press now belongs not to those who own one, but to those who own a modem. We own a modem.” The myth of the Internet’s potential was powerful, and I suspect our collective belief in that myth is part of why things seem so bleak right now. How could something with the potential to democratize society like never before have gone so wrong so quickly?

The answer is simple: the Internet empowered bullies. There were fewer gatekeepers to keep them in check and said gatekeepers for the most part chose to ignore the problem. And let’s be honest, most of the rest of us didn’t pressure them to do better until it was too late. We accepted that bullying was the price you paid for being online. We ignored the voices of those under threat, or told them to grow a thicker skin or get offline. We ignored that those targeted were mostly women, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQ.

The bullies grew their power and honed their ability to weaponize the Internet to target their victims. In 2016 we elected Donald Trump, the ultimate bully, President. Candidate Trump’s list of targets was long and included his fellow Republican primary candidates, journalists, celebrities, and ordinary Americans who dared disagree with him. As president, Trump continues to use Twitter as a tool for harassment, and Twitter had made it clear they won’t ban him for tweeting threats that violate the platform’s terms of service because of their newsworthiness. Trump’s victims have no resource.

All of this was fresh on my mind when I watched Kathy Griffin’s #SXSW keynote interview with Kara Swisher this week. Griffin was one of President Trump’s earliest targets as President, after she tweeted a photo of her holding a prop severed Trump head (that admittedly was in poor taste). As Griffin describes it, the full force of #MAGA came down on her from Trump, his son, and every #MAGA bot and troll online. If I’ve covered it in this newsletter, Griffin lived through it. And she’s open about the fact that her life is forever changed and that her career probably won’t recover. Because no one in her industry wants to become the next target of Trump’s ire. No one wants their family receiving threats on their deathbed as Griffin’s sister did. Like any competent bully, Trump succeeded in isolating Griffin so that he could more easily dole out abuse.

By choosing the powerful over the rest of us, the tech platforms empower bullying. It’s a reprehensible stance. Everyone should have a right to a voice online, but equally important, they should have the right to be safe online. The platforms must recenter their policies around those harmed. Newsworthiness isn’t a legitimate excuse for the continued enabling of harassment and extremism.

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