Twitter announced a new idea today: It’s going to tell users that certain tweets are illegal. Not “illegal” in the, you know, government sense but illegal in the Twitter-rules sense. “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 company wrote in a blog post published today. “On the rare occasions when this happens, we’ll place a notice — a screen you have to click or tap through before you see the Tweet — to provide additional context and clarity.” The problem tweet’s algorithm reach will also be reduced.
The rules apply to verified government officials and candidates who might eventually serve in government who have more than 100,000 followers. Sure, okay.
Here’s what it will look like when someone gets penalized:
The rules apply globally but it’s clear whom the implicit focus and inspiration for this policy is: President Donald Trump, who has, in the years since his campaign launched, used his digital bully pulpit to repeatedly make posts that critics argue violate the site’s rules against threats, bullying, and dehumanization.
Today’s announcement from Twitter is … nothing? It feels like nothing. Actually, it could very easily make things worse for the company and increase the anti-tech animus that powers much of the conservative web, which believes that tech companies are “suppressing conservatives” and whatnot. It’s a conspiracy theory that persists in bad faith thanks to right-wing politicians who need a bogeyman to animate their base. (Put another way: It’s not weird that a political ideology working to unravel civil rights for practically every marginalized group would be associated with bullying and dehumanization, and maybe more frequently subjected to rules prohibiting bullying and dehumanization.)
But the only thing that virtual gates like the one introduced today do is lend politicians that make offending statements a sort of punk aspect, if you can believe it. Just like people post screenshots of reasons why they got put in a Twitter time-out in order to earn cred, this feature will appeal to supporters of the politicians most likely to be affected. For Trump, specifically, the appeal of his tweets is that they are aggressive and often politically incorrect. Putting the lame equivalent of a “Parental Advisory/Explicit Lyrics” label in front of them only burnishes his reputation. The same can likely be said for any far-right populist who’s discovered the benefits of making blunt and controversial statements online and disregarding social decorum.
Tweets that may be subject to this policy going forward (it is not retroactive) could arguably earn more attention once one of these notifications is slapped on top of it. Tweets that might otherwise pass through the news cycle unnoticed now become newsworthy by virtue of having been penalized. The idea of, say, cable news reporting on a penalized Trump tweet responsibly is laughable! In effect, Twitter has announced the ability to apply the Streisand effect (earning something more attention by trying to hide it) to any politician’s tweet. It’s a performative solution meant to mute criticism without actually fixing anything. It would probably better if Twitter continued to do nothing at all.