Twitter, you'll crimp world leaders' tweets? Good luck with that

Commentary: Social media is at the center of media and politics, but its plan to get ready for what might come in 2020 seems weak. Let's ask Twitter’s CEO about it -- together.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read

Jack Dorsey has been forced to answer questions from Congress, but we still don't have all the answers.

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Hey, @jack, can we talk some more?

Two years ago, I asked seven questions about how you handled harassment, arguing, among other things, that you need to more clearly spell out enforcement policies for "newsworthy" people, including the president of the United States. I wanted to know what rules and standards you'd hold them to.

On Tuesday, Twitter announced a new, potentially explosive change to its policies, saying that "world leaders" will be allowed to tweet pretty much with free rein. But if they violate the rules, you might post a warning, forcing people to click through to read the offending tweet. You might take away the ability to reply, retweet, like or comment. And in some instances, maybe, possibly, you might go further if they threaten someone's safety.

I'm glad you've clarified things -- a little. But the answer, after years of public debate about social media harassment by world leaders, amounts to little more than a digital slap on the wrist. I mean, you're essentially saying world leaders can tweet anything they want on Twitter. 

It's no wonder that in 2017, just before the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, nearly two-thirds of US adults believed harassment is "a major problem," and most believe it's your job as CEO of a social media company to fix it. And if you can't fix it, by the way, more than half of Americans said government should regulate tech companies, according to market research firm HarrisX.

It doesn't help that you seem unconcerned, @jack. Twitter's account posts weird tweets like "Uno!" and "hugs!" Meanwhile, you're tweeting about stuff like Golden State Warriors basketball, alkaline water and the cryptocurrency efforts being made by your other company, Square.


The discourse on Twitter can get pretty coarse.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

In a February interview with tech editor and commentator Kara Swisher, you said you were worried Twitter incentivized "outrage, fast takes, short term thinking, echo chambers and fragmented conversation." And in attempting to fix it, you tried to do too much at once and weren't "focused on what matters most." (You didn't say what it is that "matters most," but I presume you mean making Twitter a more civil place.) 

Eight months later, things don't seem much better. 

So far, you've largely gotten a pass because lawmakers didn't really understand the problem. And now that Congress is mired in an impeachment probe of President Donald Trump , it likely won't change in the near term. 

But the government is increasingly looking in your direction. Presidential candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a  Massachusetts Democrat, say they want to regulate the tech industry. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the European Union and the UK government have begun ramping up enforcement against big tech and social media.

The issue isn't going to go away. If anything, things will be getting hotter. On Tuesday night during the Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, Warren hammered home her point that tech powerhouses need to be reined in.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, meanwhile, took direct aim at Twitter, where Trump routinely lets loose, and too often, critics say, with tweets that go too far. "Trump's tweets incite violence, threaten witnesses, and obstruct justice," Harris said. "Big tech companies must be held accountable for how they allow him to abuse their platforms."

Since Twitter declined to make you available for an interview, again, I'm going to go ahead and ask my questions here instead on behalf of the 139 million people (and how many bots?) who use your platform on average every day.

1. What's your intention here? 
I guess that removing the ability to like, reply to or retweet a world leader's tweet that violates your rules could stop its viral spread or prevent the conversation it sparked on Twitter from getting out of hand. 

But are you trying to teach that world leader what's OK and not OK to post on Twitter -- really? Or is it to get people like me to shut up about how often you let harassing tweets from world leaders slide?

2. If noteworthy people can cross the line, does that mean there's no line for them? 
This goes back to my long-held concerns. If there are effectively no rules for some people, because there are no real consequences, then what's the point of this new rule at all?

I make this point because some world leaders spread conspiracy theories and make provably false accusations that can cause real-world harm. In one example, Trump slammed an anonymous intelligence service whistleblower who raised concerns that helped lead to the beginning of an impeachment inquiry. Trump's tweets contributed to such a toxic climate that the whistleblower's lawyers are now concerned for his safety. The point of whistleblowing laws is to encourage people to expose misconduct and potentially illegal activity without fear of retaliation.

But, of course, Trump's followed by more than 65 million accounts, including nearly 20% of US adult Twitter users. And his tweets are plastered over news sites and commentary pages, putting Twitter's logo front and center in one of the biggest debates of our time. So, of course, I have to ask...


President Donald Trump is one of the most closely followed Twitter users in the world. He's also used his account to attack rivals.

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3. Are you bad at policing Twitter because it's good for business?
I've asked this before. I still don't know the answer.

4. Isn't this going to just exacerbate the accusations of liberal bias anyway?
A constant canard you and your peers at Facebook and Google face is that you censor people who express right-wing views and write for right-wing sites. Any action you take on a world leader with those views would be highly scrutinized as a result.

But how does this make anything better? You're effectively telling us that an offending tweet violated your rules, but you're also taking potentially superficial action on it. In some ways, it's the worst of all choices: a rule-violating tweet stays up and the world leader's supporters believe you're censoring that person anyway.

5. How does this help with civil discourse?
Let's push this idea further. If the tweet stays up, and the world leader's supporters believe Twitter is an unfair censor, now the debate becomes about Twitter in addition to the contents of the tweet. If anything, you've just muddied the waters.

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6. So can I be a "newsworthy" person?
I guess it doesn't matter anymore since you've adjusted your language to say you'll only let "world leaders" break your rules. I suppose I'll have to become leader of a country if I want to try my hand at being an unrepentant Twitter troll. Does being crowned head of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros count?

7. What's the new game?
I'm sure you've spent a long time gaming out how the Twittersphere will respond to this. So what happens next? Do people create hashtags around violating tweets and still discuss them? Do the untold thousands of bots run by countries that want to interfere in US elections find new ways to exacerbate the most toxic parts of the conversation, as they have before?

How many steps ahead are you thinking? And if you aren't, what's your goal here anyway? 

I'm happy to take your answers in tweet form. 

Do you have some questions for @jack, too? Let's hear them.

Originally published Oct. 16, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 1:09 p.m. PT: Adds information on statements by Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.