Critics say Twitter treats hate speech as being 'public interest'

Many argue that company is unwilling to act against threats of political violence or intimidation, from Trump or others.

    A tweet from US President Donald Trump encouraging Israel not to allow Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to enter Israel [Jim Bourg/Reuters]
    A tweet from US President Donald Trump encouraging Israel not to allow Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to enter Israel [Jim Bourg/Reuters]

    Amid calls from some Democrats to suspend the account of United States President Donald Trump, Twitter says world leaders' accounts are not entirely above its policies and that it will crack down on any account that violates rules.

    The San Francisco company is clarifying its regulations, as a number of Democratic officials say they would like to see Trump booted off the social media site that has been his favoured platform for filterless communication with the internet universe.

    But while Twitter said it will enforce its policies against any user when it comes to material such as child sexual abuse, direct threats of violence against a private individual, or posting someone's private information, it does not appear Trump's account is in imminent danger.

    A blog post this week expanded on Twitter's policy governing tweets. In June, Twitter said world leaders' tweets that violate its rules - but have clear public-interest value - might get a warning label. That would provide context on the violation and let people click through to see the tweet if they want.

    While Twitter said before that it will not allow its algorithms to "elevate" or otherwise promote tweets that have a warning label, it now says it also will not let people retweet or comment on them.

    Users will still be able to quote the material by adding their own message above someone else's tweet posted on their own timeline. This nuance shows the fine line Twitter is trying to walk with its policy to promote free expression, but limit incitement without context.

    But the company has yet to slap a tweet with a warning label since putting its policy into effect. So where does Twitter really stand?

    'Not in violation'

    On Tuesday, Twitter said it will take action on any account - world leader or not - that makes direct threats of violence against a person, depending on the context.

    However, a world leader interacting directly with another public figure or commenting on political issues would "likely not result in enforcement", Twitter said.

    "Foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules," the company's blog post reads.

    For instance, Trump has threatened Iran on Twitter, prompting his critics to call for his removal from the service. But based on Twitter's policy, that would not count as a violation.

    But other actions - explicitly advocating "terrorism", posting someone's private information such as an address or phone number, promoting self-harm, engaging in child sexual exploitation or sharing intimate photos of someone without their consent - could get a world leader kicked off Twitter.

    Twitter has not said what prompted Tuesday's blog post. But there is growing pressure from Democrats, including presidential candidate and California Senator Kamala Harris, to remove Trump from Twitter because of what they see as bullying and abuse.

    In a public letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Harris listed offending tweets from Trump such as one on September 29 when he wrote that he wants Democratic Representative Adam Schiff arrested and questioned for "treason".

    "No user, regardless of their job, wealth, or stature should be exempt from abiding by Twitter's user agreement, not even the President of the United States," the letter reads.

    But Twitter has not removed Trump. And the tweets in question are without any warning label. Even with Tuesday's explanation, it is not entirely clear what tweets from a world leader would merit one.

    Since Schiff is also a public figure, Twitter could argue that he is fair game to be targeted rhetorically by the president.

    'We do not treat politicians any differently'

    Twitter has critics on all sides. Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project who focuses on far-right extremist propaganda online, called the policy statement a step in the right direction.

    But, he added, Twitter is essentially arguing "that hate speech can be in the public interest".

    "I am arguing that hate speech is never in the public interest," said Hankes.

    If Trump's tweets were to get a warning label, however, this could fuel his supporters' ire towards Twitter. The president routinely complains - without evidence - that social media sites are biased against him and other conservatives.

    Neither Facebook nor Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube) have specific policies exempting world leaders from their rules.

    Yet Trump's use of Twitter is unique as it is unprecedented, so other social media companies have not felt the same pressure to enact Trump-centric policy.

    All the big social media companies generally ban direct threats of violence, supporting "terrorism", as well as hate speech and abuse.

    But enforcement can be spotty on all counts, and context matters. Even in the president's case, many of the tweets that offend his critics would fall into a gray area.

    That said, Facebook's recently announced policy of not fact-checking politicians' posts or advertisements has drawn fire from critics, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential candidate.

    To prove her point, Warren took out an advertisement on Facebook which purposely made the false claim that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump for president.

    YouTube, meanwhile, says it removes material that violates its community guidelines, regardless of who posts it.

    "We do not treat politicians any differently," said YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo.

    SOURCE: AP news agency