Social media platform Twitter has recently announced that it will be de-emphasizing content posted by influential “rule breakers” who post content in violation of its terms of service, instead of removing the content altogether. By doing so, Twitter hopes to encourage free debate and discussion online. Where should social media stand on the debate between free-speech and online security?
Twitter is an American online microblogging and social networking platform through which users can post and interact with messages known as "tweets". Founded back in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, Twitter has grown to become one of the most influential social media platforms with over 320 million active users all over the world.
Today, Twitter is an online hub for political discussion, playing an important role in several political campaign strategies. The brevity of messaging encouraged by Twitter’s 140 character policy (which has since, been extended to 280 characters) made Twitter an incredible tool for concise, to-the-point communication.
In a recent blog post, Twitter announced that it would be rolling out a new policy in which it would issue a warning label on posts that are in violation of Twitter’s rules of acceptable content. Normally, such content would simply be deleted, but in this case, Twitter has made an exception for politically influential people.
The warning label will display the following message: "The Twitter Rules about abusive behavior apply to this Tweet. However, Twitter has determined it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain available."
The new policy only applies to certain users who meet the following criteria -
a) Be or represent a government official, be running for public office, or be considered for a government position (i.e., next in line, awaiting confirmation, named successor to an appointed position);
b)Have more than 100,000 followers
So, why is the selection criteria so narrow and specific? According to Twitter, “By nature of their positions these leaders have outsized influence and sometimes say things that could be considered controversial or invite debate and discussion. A critical function of our service is providing a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable.” Therefore, by publishing content with a warning, Twitter is able to facilitate healthy public political debate, while adhering to its security policies.
In the past, Twitter has been criticized for not taking action against influential users who have breached Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter has always defended their actions by claiming that exceptions to the rule were made in public interest, and this new policy expounds upon the same sentiment.
Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. have come under immense public scrutiny for failing to take responsibility for the part that social media plays in spreading hatred, abuse, and misinformation. The Christchurch mosque shooting which was live-streamed on Facebook served as a tipping point which compelled Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon to commit to best practices for maintaining online safety.
Of all Twitter’s rules to follow, political figures most often fail to adhere to two – the rule against abuse/harassment, and the rule against hateful conduct. According to the Abuse/harassment rule, “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm.” The Hateful Conduct rule stipulates that “You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.”
In order to enforce Twitter’s new policy, human teams are being set up to evaluate content that might be flagged. This may or may not result in biased interpretations of content which could undermine free-speech. The alternative would be to use AI to flag inappropriate content, but the jury is still out on whether AI can effectively control for political bias.
It is our assessment that social media should place right in the middle of the ‘free-speech vs. security’ debate. Twitter’s latest policy seems to be a step in the right direction. It recognizes that free speech is important and outright censorship would adversely impact public discourse, but at the same time, Twitter also recognizes the potential harm that 140 characters might pose and warns users of it.
We believe that free speech is central to democratic discourse and social media is at the epicentre of online expression. However, regulation of social media can be a slippery slope and the high-profile nature of the new policy’s targets may generate a lot of criticism from political elites who might accuse Twitter of being politically biased. We feel that social media platforms should be more transparent about their content evaluation criteria so that users are aware of why certain content has been flagged so that they can make the decision to consume (or not consume) it. We predict that these warning labels will encourage users to question the content they are consuming online instead of blindly accepting every tweet that makes its way onto their feed. This will challenge users to consider alternative perspectives.
We think that influential people on social media have a certain level of responsibility to condemn hateful speech online. But users may not be able to even recognize public endorsements of online abuse, hatred, and harassment unless they are informed it is such.
We predict that Twitter’s policy will impact several political figures in America, especially during intense campaigning for the 2020 presidential election - for example Donald Trump, who recently launched his re-election campaign, frequently uses Twitter to candidly communicate his opinions and intentions. It remains to be seen as to how (and on whom) Twitter plans to exercise their latest policy – that is something only time will tell.