Twitter now warns users when a politician’s tweet breaks the site’s rules

1 Jul 2019

Image: prykhodov/Depositphotos

Twitter has admitted that up until now, it was not clear when and how certain determinations should be made.

On Thursday (27 June), Twitter publicly acknowledged that, over the last few years, a number of public figures and politicians have been allowed to violate the website’s rules without consequence.

In a statement posted by the company’s safety department, Twitter announced that it was introducing a new notice to ensure that it is “protecting the health of the public conversation on Twitter”, while highlighting when rules have been broken by accounts with a significant number of followers.

The statement read: “Serving the public conversation includes providing the ability for anyone to talk about what matters to them; this can be especially important when engaging with government officials and political figures. 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.”

Twitter added: “There are certain cases where it may be in the public’s interest to have access to certain tweets, even if they would otherwise be in violation of our rules.”

The website then explained that its new notice will flag these tweets for the average user, with a warning that they are in violation of the site’s rules. Twitter also said it will ensure that the tweets are “not algorithmically elevated” on the service, “to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability and reducing the potential harm caused by these tweets”.

Twitter will only be applying this new notice to tweets from accounts run by or representing government officials, people running for public office, and those waiting in line for a government position. They must also have more than 100,000 followers and a verified Twitter account.

It shared an image of the new notice, which warns users: “The Twitter rules about abusive behaviour apply to this tweet. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain available.”

In order to reduce the impact an offending tweet makes, Twitter will remove it from the site’s safe search function, any timeline that has ‘Top Tweets’ turned on, live events pages, push notifications and the site’s ‘Explore’ tab.

Twitter admitted that up until now, it was not clear when and how these determinations should be made. Following this announcement, the decisions will be made by a “cross-functional team including trust and safety, legal, public policy, and regional teams to determine if the tweets are a matter of public interest based on the criteria listed above”.

In its blog, Twitter outlined that the team will also consider:

  • the immediacy and severity of potential harm from the rule violation, with an emphasis on ensuring physical safety
  • whether preserving a tweet will allow others to hold the government official, candidate for public office or appointee accountable for their statements
  • whether there are other sources of information about this statement available for the public to stay informed
  • if removal would inadvertently hide context or prevent people from understanding an issue of public concern
  • if the tweet provides a unique context or perspective not available elsewhere that is necessary to a broader discussion

In Twitter’s announcement, the site said that these new notices will be very rare “given the conditions outlined above”, and the feature will not be applied to any tweets sent before the feature was implemented.

It’s likely that had this feature been introduced earlier, it could have been placed as a warning over Donald Trump’s tweet telling North Korea he had a nuclear button that could destroy the Asian country at any given moment – which broke Twitter’s rule that says “you may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people” – or the other occasions in which the US president broke the site’s rules about harassment, furtherance of illegal activities and hateful conduct.

A spokesperson from Twitter told Wired that “there won’t be any appeals and there won’t be any communication to the user”, which would inform them that a notice has been placed on one of their tweets. Twitter also said it’s unlikely that direct threats of violence or calls to commit violence against an individual would be considered in the public interest.

Twitter on an iPhone. Image: prykhodov/Depositphotos

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic