New Twitter Censorship Rules Raise Transparency Questions
After years of being on the defensive over data breaches, privacy invasion, censorship and monopoly concerns, social media platforms are leveraging the current public health crisis to vastly expand and entrench their power in an ostensibly free society. Last week Facebook announced it was banning the use of its platform to organize many kinds of anti-lockdown protests, expanding its reach from the digital to the physical world. For its part, Twitter took the opportunity to sweepingly expand its censorship policy, heightening its role in deciding what constitutes “truth.”
On Wednesday, Twitter announced that it was “broadening our guidance on unverified claims” and that, with respect to COVID-19-related posts, “unverified claims that have the potential to incite people to action … or cause widespread panic/social unrest may be considered a violation of our policies.” It cited this as an example of such now-banned posts: “the National Guard just announced that no more shipments of food will be arriving for two months — run to the grocery store ASAP and buy everything.”
The company has been rolling out regular updates to its “acceptable speech” policies during the pandemic, steadily constraining ever further the kinds of thoughts and commentary it allows. Over the last few weeks alone, it has “broadened our definition of harm to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information” and noted that “we may also apply the public interest notice in cases where world leaders violate the COVID-19 guidelines.” Similar to Facebook, it bans posts that “actively encourage people to not socially distance themselves” and adds that it also prohibits “denial of established scientific facts … or guidance from global and local health authorities.”
What does all of this mean in practice and who does Twitter consider to be a source of authoritative “truth” when public health officials themselves have repeatedly gotten the most basic of details so wrong?
The company declined to comment when asked whether tweets by news outlets about meat shortages and advising readers to rush to stores, or photos from ordinary users of widespread Tylenol shortages, thus encouraging people to buy before their own store runs out, would fall afoul of its “widespread panic” policy. Media coverage of pandemic-era shortages often cite analysts, anonymous company sources or reports from data firms that rarely are formally verified at the time, raising questions of how Twitter plans to arbitrate what counts as a “verified claim.”
More troubling, Twitter has emerged as a go-to source for governments to spot emerging issues such as shortages and to understand “quarantine fatigue” responses among the public. If Twitter actively bans posts documenting shortages and other information that governments rely upon to make decisions, it could blind public officials to critical emerging changes.
As for deciding whether a tweet “denies global or local health authority recommendations,” how does Twitter balance the fact that U.S. health officials have repeatedly been wrong in the assessments that formed their recommendations? For example, would tweets over the last four months urging Americans to wear face masks, in accordance with the recommendations of the international medical community, have been blocked by Twitter since they ran counter to the official stance of U.S. public health officials at the time?
What about tweets pointing out the international consensus that asymptotic individuals were infectious even as U.S. officials repeatedly downplayed that conclusion? Given how much is still unknown about COVID-19 and how conflicting public health recommendations have been, how will Twitter decide what is “true” and what is “unverified”? And should a social media company really be making such momentous medical decisions in the first place?
Asked all of these questions, a spokesperson said the company had no comment.
Yet perhaps the most revealing commentary came when Twitter was asked why it believed it did not owe the public greater transparency regarding the censorship decisions it makes during a national medical emergency. Specifically, how does it create its rules? What experts does it turn to in crafting them? What is the review process to approve a new rule and why does the company not engage with the public more closely in formulating those rules?
Twitter’s response: That it is transparent because it publishes periodic reports summarizing how often it enforces its rules. In other words, to Twitter, “transparency” means publicizing how often it acts on its rules, not greater visibility into how those rules come to be in the first place.
In the end, the speed and scope with which social media platforms are redefining acceptable speech and allowable ideas, extending their reach into the physical world and arbitrating “truth,” remind us just how fragile democracy and free speech are as we cede an ever-greater portion of the public square to unaccountable private companies.