The next time a public official, politician, or certain president violates Twitter’s rules, the company says users will notice. The offending tweet will either be removed from the platform entirely or quarantined behind a new gray interstitial that warns users that the content ran afoul of the platform’s guidelines and limits its reach. The new feature, announced Thursday, comes after years of Twitter turning a blind eye to violations of its own policies prohibiting harassment and other hateful conduct by government officials in the name of “newsworthiness." Twitter now admits that approach lacked clarity and transparency.
In cases where Twitter has determined it is in the public’s interest to have access to a tweet by a political figure or leader that is in violation of Twitter’s rules, the platform will hide it behind “a screen you have to click or tap through before you see the Tweet,” Twitter said. The notice is meant both to act as a speed bump by requiring users to explicitly opt-in to view the content—similar to Reddit’s quarantine feature for offensive subreddits—and to provide more context on which of Twitter’s rules the tweet breaks and why it remains on the platform.
Tweets hidden behind this notice will see their reach crippled, and will not appear in users’ timelines under the default settings, the default search option, the notifications tab, explore, live events pages, or in recommended tweet push notifications, according to a company spokesperson.
Twitter will rely on user reports and inquiries from journalists to identify tweets by government officials and politicians that may violate its rules, a spokesperson told WIRED. If a review by Twitter moderators determines a rule has been broken, the case will be passed along to a different group—which includes members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety, Legal, Public Policy, and regional teams—to determine if it is “in the public interest” for it to remain on the site.
Paris Martineau covers platforms, online influence, and social media manipulation for WIRED.
When asked about the efficiency of such an approach—which is significantly more complicated than Twitter’s existing, notoriously inconsistent moderation flow—the spokesperson pointed to the high number of factors at play in high-profile scenarios.
“If a rule has been broken we want to make sure that we are reaching that decision as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “We also want to make sure that it's the right call to make, because this is something that, as you can imagine, the very first time that we use it, it will garner a lot of attention.”
Twitter has long clung to the newsworthy standard despite mounting criticism over the platform’s selective application of content moderation standards. In a 2017 interview with WIRED, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey doubled down on his laissez-faire approach to Trump tweets that violate the platform’s rules. “We’re not taking something down that people should be able to report on and actually show that this is what the source said,” he told Steven Levy. “It’s really important to make sure that we provide that source for the right reporting, and to minimize bias in articles.” But other Twitter executives have been publicly floating the idea of some sort of labeling system since at least March.
The move comes at a politically fraught moment for tech giants, as President Trump and others argue (often via tweet) that companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are engaged in a coordinated campaign to censor conservatives. A mere 24 hours prior to the announcement, Trump attacked Twitter on Fox Business Network.
“Twitter is just terrible, what they do. They don’t let you get the word out,” Trump told the show. “I have millions and millions of followers, but I will tell you, they make it very hard for people to join me in Twitter and they make it very much harder for me to get out the message.”
Several of the president’s past tweets have violated Twitter’s terms of service. The moderation feature announced Thursday will not apply retroactively, the company said in a blog post. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Facebook also has a newsworthy standard, though the platform does not currently provide context into each of its decisions, nor does it quarantine offensive content behind an interstitial.
In the blog post, Twitter gives an example of one possible notice users might see: "The Twitter Rules about abusive behavior apply to this Tweet," reads text in a gray box superimposed over a user's tweet. "However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain available. Learn more." To the right of the text, there is an option to click "View" to continue on to the offending tweet.
Twitter has long taken a much harsher approach to content moderation for the average user, whose tweets are flat out removed—albeit inconsistently—if suspected of violating the platform’s guidelines. Twitter says it will only remove the tweets of a public official “in instances where a Tweet violates our rules and our review doesn’t find that it would be in the public interest to leave it up”—like if it features direct threats of violence or calls to commit violence directed at an individual, the blog post said. Twitter has removed tweets from world leaders before: in February, the company took down a tweet from an account linked to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for appearing to threaten the author Salman Rushdie.
Twitter says that it will only consider applying the new moderation feature to accounts that are verified, have more than 100,000 followers, and are “or represent a government official, [are] running for public office, or [are] considered for a government position (i.e., next in line, awaiting confirmation, named successor to an appointed position).” The feature, then, would not have been used in the Khamenei incident earlier this year; the account, @khamenei_ir, while long believed to belong to the ayatollah or his office, is not verified.
Public officials whose tweets are restricted for violating the platform’s rules will not be notified directly, nor will they have an opportunity to appeal the decision, Twitter confirmed.
“There won't be any appeals and there won't be any communication to the user, however, it [the restriction] will be noticed very quickly,” the spokesperson said, chuckling.
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