This week Twitter finally took on President Trump, fact-checking the false tweets in which he foretold electoral fraud, and then pointing out that his 1 a.m. tweet with the words “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” about riots in Minneapolis, violates Twitter policies. This was a correct and important stand to take: no one should be above the rules.
Twitter still didn’t remove the tweets, under its longstanding position that it does not take down anything Trump writes, under its “newsworthy” or “public interest” exception. The reasoning is this: the public has such a strong interest in anything Trump writes or says that it should all be allowed on Twitter. That’s wrong for at least two reasons. The public doesn’t in fact need to be privy to Trump’s every impetuous squawk: we have made it through all other presidencies without reading what the man was thinking in the middle of the night. Second, Trump has myriad other ways to reach the public. Twitter is a useful outlet but it’s obviously not his only one.
Instead of removing the tweets this week, Twitter commented on them, adding fact-checking to the tweets about voting and noting that the “looting, shooting” tweet violates Twitter’s policy against “glorifying violence.” Correcting Trump makes more sense than attempting (and necessarily failing) to censor him, as it’s an opportunity to borrow his megaphone for a moment.
But that’s where Twitter made a key mistake regarding the tweet early this morning: it didn’t explain clearly how or why the tweet violated its policy. The more confusing and slippery Trump’s language is, the more important it is to correct him clearly.
Twitter is far from alone in this. Social media platforms have long been poor at explaining the rules under which they now govern more human communication than every government does, or ever has: on Facebook alone, there are billions of posts every day, and the company removes about one million of them for ostensibly violating its rules, not including content removed as spam.
Trump’s tweet about Minneapolis, where protests against the police killing of George Floyd morphed into riots yesterday, read in part: “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Twitter hid the post under its exception against “glorifying violence” which says, “you can’t glorify, celebrate, praise or condone violent crimes, violent events where people were targeted because of their membership in a protected group, or the perpetrators of such acts.” Twitter made reference to the historical context of the tweet, but didn’t explain that either. In fact, Trump was threatening violence, much more than glorifying it. In 1967, amid violence in Miami’s African-American neighborhoods, the city’s white police chief, Walter Headley, warned that the police would use dogs and guns against rioters and famously used the exact phrases that Trump borrowed, “I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Explaining this would have allowed Twitter’s users and the rest of the public to understand the company’s decision and its rationale why Trump’s tweet was dangerous.
Context, as we know at the Dangerous Speech Project, makes all the difference. Next time — which surely won’t be long — Twitter should explain how and why it enforces its rules.