Twitter’s telling you who matters

Every now and then, people tell you what they stand for. They don’t always mean to do it, but it happens all the same.

Twitter does it a lot when it comes to the things they allow on their site. This time, they’ve reinforced who they think is important on their platform.

But that’s not what they meant to say.

Twitter has told people they can’t express hope Trump dies from COVID-19. Here’s Jason Koebler, reporting for Motherboard:

Twitter told Motherboard that users are not allowed to openly hope for Trump’s death on the platform and that tweets that do so “will have to be removed” and that they may have their accounts put into a “read only” mode. Twitter referred to an “abusive behavior” rule that’s been on the books since April.

“Content that wishes, hopes or expresses a desire for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against an individual is against our rules,” Twitter said in a statement.

Twitter Comms reinforced that this rule applies to everyone – not just Trump:

tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against anyone are not allowed and will need to be removed. this does not automatically mean suspension.

Of course it does: it’s a rule for the whole platform, after all. But the fact that the rule exists matters less than how it’s applied. Motherboard asked about that:

When Motherboard asked how tightly Twitter will enforce this policy with regard to Trump, it said that it “won’t take enforcement action on every Tweet. We’re prioritizing the removal of content when it has a clear call to action that could potentially cause real-world harm.” It is not clear whether Twitter believes that hoping for the death of the president can lead him to actually die, or where the line is.

That ambiguity is what matters. It turns a hard and fast rule into something amorphous and almost useless in either encouraging the kinds of behaviour you want on a platform or discouraging the kinds of behaviour you don’t want.

Here’s the thing about rules and moderation: they signal what you value. When you’re talking about the kinds of content you’ll remove, you’re talking about the kinds of things you want and don’t what on your platform and the things you do or don’t value. That’s obvious.

But they’re also about the people you value (or don’t value). That’s made explicit when it comes to things like banning people or locking accounts. But it gets more subtle when you start looking at the people you want to protect.

Which lives matter?

Here’s another obvious statement: a whole lot of people have been wished dead on Twitter.

Here are just a few tweets reacting to Motherboard’s article:

Zoë Quinn:

Is it now? The last 7 years of my life would like to have a word with you…

Holly Green:

Two weeks ago I reported a user who told me to hang myself and Twitter never so much as even followed up

Leena:

Literally cannot count the amount of times some sadsack has wished me dead on twitter.

Looked at my Threats File (oh yes, that’s something that women have to do, that’s our price of entry) and I haven’t even recorded “wished dead” because it’s not serious enough in comparison.

Twitter hasn’t removed posts wishing these women were dead. They haven’t suspended anyone for these tweets. And they haven’t acted on people wishing death on countless other women, or black people, or queer people, or trans people, or people belonging to any other vulnerable group you care to name.[^1]

And this is serious. Telling someone you wish they were dead, or that they should kill themselves, or that they need to die isn’t just an insult. It’s not the same or a more serious version of telling someone that they suck. It’s one person telling another they they’re less important, fundamentally, as a person than others. That they hold less value in the world, that their existence, because of their very being, is so worthless or even destructive to the world and society that they should remove themselves from it permanently. There’s no redemption or getting better. Nothing you can do. Better to check out now before you do more harm.

That’s what you’re telling someone when you say they should die. And, if no one does anything to stop you saying it, then they’re telling you it’s okay to do so.

Why now?

Twitter have chosen now to highlight both the rule and their enforcement of that rule (and immediately walked back their ability to actually enforce it). Why? I can see two reasons:

  1. They’ve seen a sizable uptick in people wishing someone (Trump) was dead and can see how that will exacerbate the other problems of abuse and shitfighting on Twitter
  2. They value a certain someone or group more than others and now that someone or group are a bigger target for this kind of abuse

Let’s be honest. If Twitter was really worried about Person A that Person B should die then they would’ve acted years ago. They’d monitor their platform more closely. They’d take reports more seriously. They’d do more than this.

What this is – this comment to Motherboard, this reinforcing their rule now – is Twitter telling everyone who has been subjected to death threats (and more) that they’re less important or less valuable than Trump and his ilk.

Yes, the rule applies to everyone. But the enforcement doesn’t. That’s what matters.

Who gets power

Guidelines about what people say aren’t just about what’s said. They’re about the people who are allowed to talk. Twitter has never reckoned with that side of their moderation.

I can’t say why for sure but, if I had to guess, it’d be because doing so would fly in the face of their business model. They need as many users as possible to be successful. That’s the priority.

Twitter is supposed to be the place where everyone can talk and join the discussion (whatever that discussion may be). Since the first part of that – the everyone – is the most important part of their business, Twitter have spent most of its existence focusing their community building and rules on the second – the discussion. They’re trying to shape and moderate what people talk about to keep ”everyone” included. In doing so, they’ve lost sight of the fact that every decision about what people can say is also about who can say it.

When you’re building a community, you need to settle the ”who”. ”Everyone” doesn’t cut it. You can define it however you like: demographics, interests, actions (what people do or don’t do), whatever. If you don’t do anything, you end up chasing your tail when your rules don’t work and you just recreate the power dynamics of the wider world.

And this is totally about power and who wields it. Trump himself has threatened violence on US citizens and Twitter let it ”stay accessible”[^2]. His comment wasn’t removed. His account wasn’t suspended. Now, Twitter is rising to say that people hoping he dies – which is abstract, and not an actual threat – warrants removal.

That’s a statement of who Twitter values. Twitter is saying that Trump is allowed to threaten people with violence but he must be protected from people wishing he was dead. But, when men (and it’s usually men) wish women were dead, they’re safe. They’re allowed to do that. And women, or black people, or queer people, or whoever it may be on the receiving end, aren’t worth protecting.

That’s Twitter telling you who matters. Even if they didn’t mean to do so.


[^1]: It’s not just because the rule addressing this kind of behaviour has only been ”on the books since April”. That’s part of the issue: people have been enduring this for years.

[^2]: This particular tweet is hardly novel in the pantheon of Trump’s Twitter.