This post, originally published on Jan. 3, has been updated.
Whenever the president of the United States tweets something like this . . .
. . . or this . . .
. . . a question that has been asked since at least the beginning of Trump’s rise to power begins to circulate again: Why has Twitter not taken action against Trump’s tweets — or banned his account for violating its policies on hateful content and/or violent threats? In September of 2017, you might remember, Twitter defended its decision to keep Trump’s account intact when the president tweeted something else that was interpreted as a threat to North Korea:
In January, a group of protesters projected the phrase “@Jack is complicit” onto Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters in response to Trump’s most recent tweet about North Korea. (@Jack is Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive. The group, as the Verge reported, demanded that Dorsey either resign from Twitter or ban Trump from the platform. Others started an online campaign urging people to flag Trump’s tweet to Twitter’s moderators, hoping that a protest by volume might prompt the social network to respond.
Trump’s capslock tweet to Iran started those calls once again.
Over the last year, Twitter has explained a little bit about why it disagrees with calls for banning Trump’s account or deleting some of his tweets. Here are its three main reasons:
A rule loophole for “military or government entities”
On Dec. 18, Twitter announced it would begin enforcement of new rules designed to stem the influence of hateful and abusive conduct. That announcement contained what is possibly the clearest loophole that could protect Trump’s account from disciplinary action when he tweets something that might otherwise violate the rules.
Twitter bans “specific threats of violence or wishing for serious physical harm, death, or disease to an individual or group of people.” Some say that Trump is violating that policy when he tweets about his “Nuclear Button,” or how North Korea “won’t be around much longer” or how Iran “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
But even if Twitter considered Trump’s tweets to be a violation of these rules (we’ll get to that), the social media site has an exemption for “military or government entities,” under the section banning “accounts that affiliate with organizations that use or promote violence against civilians.”
The president of the United States would certainly qualify as a government entity.
In January, a few days after Trump tweeted about the size of his nuclear button, Twitter released a blog post that more clearly outlined how it approaches enforcing its rules against world leaders.
“Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global, public conversation. Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society,” the post says. “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
The platform also said that it looks at tweets from world leaders “within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly. ”
Trump tweeted in September that North Korea “won’t be around much longer!” if it doesn’t change its tune toward the United States, prompting calls to ban Trump for violating Twitter’s rules against physical threats.
Twitter defended its decision to keep the tweet and Trump’s account, saying that the platform considered “newsworthiness” as a factor while examining potential rule violations. “We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether Tweets violate our Rules,” Twitter’s public policy account wrote in a statement. “Among the considerations is ‘newsworthiness’ and whether a Tweet is of public interest. This has long been internal policy and we’ll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it. We need to do better on this.”
As The Washington Post’s Brian Fung wrote at the time, this was the clearest look yet at Twitter’s thinking on Trump’s account.
But “newsworthiness” itself can be a vague and malleable term, particularly once it’s thrown in with all the other factors the platform considers when enforcing its rules. For instance, Twitter banned the accounts of a far-right British group that had been retweeted by Trump, meaning that those tweets and the retweet disappeared from the site. If a tweet by the president is inherently newsworthy, what about a retweet?
Another example, from October of 2017: Actress Rose McGowan’s account was temporarily locked for tweeting “private information” — in this case, an image of an email that was relevant to the accusations of sexual assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein. The image contained a private phone number from an email signature. Like Trump, McGowan’s tweets were also newsworthy, but the calculus of rule enforcement here reached a different conclusion.
The rules themselves
Twitter has done a lot of work over the past couple of years to clarify its rules and how they are enforced. But, as with most platforms, Twitter still leaves room for the site to interpret the rules as it wants in any given situation. And that gives Twitter its third way out of disciplining Trump’s account — a determination that something he tweeted isn’t a violation of the rules in the first place.
Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman once called this the “specifically vague” approach to writing rules for social platforms. The argument is that sites should always have the leeway to interpret their own rules as needed because if the rules are too specific, bad actors will be able to find loopholes and get off on a technicality.
For example: Twitter doesn’t believe that Trump’s tweet about the size and effectiveness of the president’s “Nuclear Button” broke its rules. In a January statement to Business Insider, Twitter said the tweet was not a “specific threat” and therefore wasn’t banned by its rule against “specific threats of violence or wishing for serious physical harm, death, or disease to an individual or group of people.”
We reached out to Twitter on Monday morning for comment on Trump’s overnight tweet to the Iranian president. Twitter declined to comment, instead directing us to the platform’s January blog post about world leaders.