This was a busy week for Twitter. The company made major headlines at least three times — and as is often the case, the first of the three received the least attention. Twitter’s decision to update its public policies after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened North Korea deserves more scrutiny. Yes, more than the 280 character limit or even the suspension of Russia-linked accounts.
140 was a poorly chosen arbitrary number. Doubling the poorly chosen arbitrary number is just as arbitrarily a poor choice. More broadly, Twitter has been messing around with limits for years, including flip–flopping on the 140 number, so this latest test is iterative. To be clear, I don’t agree with the way Twitter is doing it, but I’m not at all shocked it is.
Soon after Facebook revealed the use political ads from Russia on its platform during the 2016 U.S. election, Congress asked Facebook, along with Google and Twitter to testify. If you want to get your message out, why wouldn’t you use Twitter in addition to Facebook? Even Russia knows you have to hit both. Twitter talking about Russian meddling is completely expected. To be clear, I’m not downplaying the significance — again, I’m just not at all shocked.
I do, however, want to underline the significance of Twitter cofounder Biz Stone’s post this week titled “Newsworthy and of Public Interest,” which of course was also tweeted by the site’s Policy account. Here is the text in full:
Some of you have been asking why we haven’t taken down the Tweet mentioned here.
We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether Tweets violate our Rules.
Among the considerations is “newsworthiness” and whether a Tweet is of public interest.
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.
Twitter is committed to transparency and keeping people informed about what’s happening in the world.
We’ll continue to be guided by these fundamental principles.
This move is worse than any tweet limit change or anything Russia could have. This is exactly how you alienate your users.
The second statement is particularly problematic: “We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether Tweets violate our Rules.”
Twitter has managed to contradict itself in the same single sentence. All accounts are treated the same, according to our rules, except when those same rules say they shouldn’t be treated the same.
I’ll come back to the third statement, but the fourth line is also worth emphasizing: “This has long been internal policy and we’ll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it.”
Twitter has finally admitted what many have long suspected: The company has internal rules that don’t reflect its public rules.
For crying out loud. Why have public rules at all if you’re enforcing a different set of internal rules?
Instead of getting rid of these internal rules, Twitter is doubling down on them. The third statement basically says tweets that violate the platform’s rules are perfectly acceptable, as long as Twitter deems them newsworthy.
This is where Trump comes in. I understand that what the president of the United States tweets is inherently more newsworthy than what most Twitter users tweet. I can even be convinced that Trump’s tweet threatening North Korea should not be removed because its importance to the world outweighs its vileness. North Korea’s foreign minister specifically called that specific tweet a declaration of war. Twitter would be doing everyone a disservice to delete such a tweet, especially when it’s being actively discussed by world leaders.
That’s not the part that Twitter is screwing up.
Trump has broken Twitter’s rules many times: before his campaign, during the 2016 primaries and election, not to mention as president. Some of them are newsworthy, sure, but Trump often simply insults individuals just because. Twitter hasn’t enforced its rules in any of these cases. The company hasn’t hidden Trump’s tweets, deleted anything, or banned the offending account.
Twitter has always said its rules apply to all users. But Twitter doesn’t act like it, and Trump is the prime example of this.
And now, the company is arguing that the rules don’t apply to Trump. Because everything the president tweets is newsworthy.
Twitter has moved the line, but in the wrong direction. Anytime Trump tweets something that breaks its rules, the company should sit down and carefully decide what to do. Is the tweet of critical importance or is it pointlessly offensive? The decision is harder than it would be for most other accounts, but all options should be on the table.
Twitter has shown it is too cowardly to make hard decisions every time Trump tweets. So it created a loophole for him.
I’m not saying Trump should be permanently banned right off the bat. Twitter has banned accounts for short timeframes before, and only moved to ban users forever after they continued to break the rules.
Trump should be treated no differently.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.