Twice this week, Twitter’s slavish and bumbling attempts to adhere to its own misguided rules pointlessly angered and alienated huge groups of users; twice this week, the social network was forced to embarrassingly reverse course on its decisions after the damage had already been done. At some point, it’s not going to have enough foot left to shoot itself in.
On Monday, Twitter refused to allow Tennessee senate candidate Marsha Blackburn to pay to promote a campaign ad that said she’d “fought Planned Parenthood” and “stopped the sale of baby body parts.” You might think that rejecting this obviously untrue ad was a bold stand against misleading campaign statements, but Twitter’s stated reason for rejecting it was that the ad was “inflammatory.” After outcry from Blackburn and her supporters, it allowed the promotion.
Then, on late Wednesday night, without explanation, Twitter locked down the account of actress Rose McGowan, who’d become a folk hero on the site for her passionate and righteous criticism of Harvey Weinstein. Twelve hours later, it clarified that the reason it had suspended McGowan from tweeting was that one of her tweets “included a private phone number” — a violation of Twitter’s terms of service. McGowan may have been tweeting on the side of justice, but rules are rules, and they have to be enforced. Sometimes, at least. Soon after Twitter’s explanation was published, multiple people reported that they’d had their private phone numbers published on Twitter in the last year, and that the service hadn’t suspended the offending accounts.
Twitter has a bad habit of losing itself deep inside the rabbit hole of its own rules, and its attempts at unthinking, both-sides consistency tend to make them seem all the more weak and arbitrary. The platform is rife with stories from people who’ve been harassed or threatened in ways that would seem to specifically violate the terms of service, but whose reports fell on deaf ears. One woman was sent the same unsolicited dick pic three different times and received three different rulings from Twitter moderators. Most prominently, the president of the United States has recently and repeatedly threatened nuclear war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a clear violation of Twitter’s ban on “violent threats.” This last one in particular has launched a sort of movement of people demanding that Twitter ban the president for violation of its rules.
Some of Twitter’s fumbling around these issues is just sheer incompetence. Some of it is an ambiguous Terms of Service. Some of it can be chalked up to outsourced moderation systems that over-ask of underpaid contractors. But the underlying issue is that Twitter is pretending to be something it isn’t, and the complaints about its inconsistency arise because of that ambiguity.
Twitter is, of course, a for-profit company that gathers data about its users in order to sell advertising. But because of its history and the cultural leanings of its founders and employees, it likes to pretend that its platform is a kind of quasi-public body — the Town Square of the Internet — or even a sort of sovereign state. And because it pretends to be a government, people believe, understandably, that it also offers the same protections and rights as a government. Twitter talks often about the right to free speech — generally, in the context of why harassment is so difficult to police on the platform — so why wouldn’t people also expect the right to equal treatment under the law? I mean, uh, equal treatment under the terms of service.
They’re not entirely wrong; Twitter does serve some quasi-public functions. But private companies that serve public functions are generally heavily regulated, or obligated to provide universal service under common-carrier laws, as telecommunications companies are. Twitter has none of those commitments; instead, it has its terms of service, behind which it hides the fact that it can more or less ban or suspend anyone whenever it wants to, for whatever reason it might choose. Twitter pretends it has rights-respecting rules because they make everyone feel a little bit better about a for-profit advertising company being a public arena. But of course, it’s only pretending. Complaining to Twitter that Trump is violating its rules is like complaining to a mall cop that the mall Santa is being loud, in direct contravention of article four of the mall’s rules of conduct.
The point here isn’t to say that Twitter is doing a good job, or that people objecting to its inconsistencies are wrong. It’s to say that Twitter’s problems go deeper than an inefficient or broken moderation system. Twitter keeps getting into trouble because it pretends to be one thing when it is in fact another thing. It should just stop.
In other words, the solution to Twitter’s inability to consistently apply the rules is to give up the rules. Stop pretending that the Terms of Service have the same power as a body of law in a democratic state. Stop gesturing vaguely at the moderation system as an approximation of due process, or really anything besides a thrown-together effort to ensure the platform remains mostly safe for advertisers. Stop implying that users have any right to speech on the platform beyond that which the company extends them. Maybe most importantly, stop trying to strike a liberal-democratic balance between free-speech rights and freedom-from-harassment rights and pick the one that’s more important.
Would users leave? Maybe, some of them, but where would they go? There’s no public alternative in which the idea of speech or due-process rights might be meaningful. A new Twitter that acknowledged its own near-absolute power over its platform might sound unjust or unfair, but even if Twitter gave up all of its “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” rhetoric, nothing in practice would change. The power dynamic between Twitter and its users — and the rights each retained — would remain exactly the same. It’s just that the relationship would be much clearer. Twitter would no longer need to provide embarrassingly elaborate justifications for its decisions, and users wouldn’t need to waste their time filing contentious objections. Don’t want to promote Marsha Blackburn’s video? Just don’t! Need to delete one of Rose McGowan’s tweets? Go for it! Want to keep the president on your service even as he sends the country to the brink of nuclear war? You don’t need anyone’s permission, Twitter! You own your website!