Last week Twitter announced that it would no longer exempt most tweets by government officials from its rules regarding what it deems abusive behavior. Historically, tweets such as President Trump’s were allowed to remain up, even if the company determined that they violated its policies, due to their being in the “public interest” as an official communication by a head of state.
Now, the company will hide and deprioritize those tweets -- and possibly even suspend accounts -- for language it deems outside its view of acceptable speech.
Under the new policy to “protect the health of the public conversation on Twitter,” which went into effect June 27, tweets that, in Twitter’s eyes, represent threats of violence can result in a public official’s account (or that of a candidate for office) being suspended until he or she deletes the offending messages. Nonviolent tweets the company sees as violating its speech rules will be hidden behind an overlay that users must click through to view the tweet, as is the case with pornography and other “sensitive” content. The tweets will also be deemphasized by Twitter’s algorithms to massively reduce their discoverability.
International diplomacy frequently involves threats of military action, with many of Trump’s use-of-force statements singled out in the past as violations of Twitter’s policies. A company spokesperson clarified that under its new policy such tweets could result in the president’s account being suspended until he deleted them.
If Trump tweeted that he would attack Iran if it struck U.S. forces or that the U.S. would seek the death penalty against a convicted terrorist, could that result in a suspension? The spokesperson answered that the company would review tweets on a case-by-case basis but refused to rule out taking action for such statements.
In 2015 Twitter famously rebuked Congress’ request that it do more to counter terrorists’ use of its platform, proclaiming that it would never restrict “the ability of users to share freely their views — including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent.”
Asked why it previously took this stance on the use of its platform but now has altered it in a way that could impact the president’s tweets, the company again said it had no comment.
What recourse would Trump have if Twitter takes action against him? The spokesperson confirmed that all of Twitter’s decisions regarding government accounts will be final and it will not permit appeals under any circumstances.
Asked who besides President Trump would be affected by this rule, the spokesperson said the company discussed internally whether to publish a list of possible accounts, but ultimately decided not to. Asked why, the spokesperson said Twitter would not comment further. As to whether the list includes more Republican accounts than Democratic ones, the company said its selection criteria were nonpartisan, but declined to comment on the list’s makeup and said it would not permit external review.
Twitter today also decides who speaks to the president of the United States. It alone determines who has the right to send a message directly to Trump and which of those messages the president is permitted to see. In this way, it can shape or even silence any debate with which it disagrees.
Putting this all together, a private company now has the right to control what the president of the United States says in his official capacity, deciding which policies he can communicate to the public and which it will forbid him or her from speaking about.
This new development, occurring as the 2020 presidential election campaign is building steam, prompts troubling questions. Perhaps chief among them is this: Is democracy warped when a widely used communication platform can now muffle the leader of the free world?