Wishing someone else ill will or death is a disgusting act that makes the world worse. This lesson of common decency seems like it would be obvious to everyone, especially a social media network with hundreds of millions of users. Twitter, for its part, recently responded swiftly to the news of U.S. President Donald Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis and said that users are not allowed to wish for the president’s death on the platform.
Now, this is a good thing, right? Yes, of course, because no one should receive death wishes. Too bad Twitter just now decided that this was a very bad thing. In other words, it waited until there was an incident involving the president of the U.S., a white man who is one of the most powerful people on the planet.
On Friday, the same day Trump announced on the social media network that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for covid-19, Twitter told Motherboard that its users are not allowed to “openly hope” for the president’s death on the platform. Doing so would result in tweets being removed, Twitter said, referring to an “abusive behaviour” rule that Motherboard reports it’s had since April.
In addition, Twitter said that people who violate the rule might have their accounts put in “read only” mode.
Twitter later released a statement on the matter, citing the Motherboard story, on its official communications account to clarify that this policy apparently applied to everyone.
“Tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against *anyone* are not allowed and will need to be removed,” Twitter wrote, emphasis theirs. “This does not automatically mean suspension.”
tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against *anyone* are not allowed and will need to be removed. this does not automatically mean suspension. https://t.co/lQ8wWGL2y0 https://t.co/P2vGfUeUQf
— Twitter Comms (@TwitterComms) October 2, 2020
The statement might seem strange, to put it lightly, for anyone that’s been on Twitter these past few years, especially women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals and so many more, who are harassed and receive death threats constantly. Many of these individuals do not see Twitter take action against their harassers, and that is exactly what makes the company’s statement so infuriating, sad and hypocritical.
Because it seems like harassment only matters when the president of the United States is on the receiving end. This is not right, and it is not fair.
Below are just a couple of the people that have responded to Twitter’s statement sharing their experience with harassment, as well as death threats and death wishes.
All my death threats from Trump supporters, including “You’ll never stop us from killing you, we just found your address,” and worse, are still in my DMs if @twitter would like to re-examine them.
It’s a fine policy, but like so many other rules, it only applies to the President https://t.co/bLdOEfgWwQ
— Senator Megan Hunt ???? (@NebraskaMegan) October 3, 2020
Let me tell y’all how much I can personally attest that has not applied to Black folks, especially Black women, the most harassed group of people on this site. https://t.co/TahbwlzzQv https://t.co/X38EKzcD7d
— back…but barely! (@MsPackyetti) October 3, 2020
It feels like just yesterday that people were threatening to kill me or telling me to kill myself while I was competing at the Olympic Games… **feeling ~nostalgic~ ????????** https://t.co/IReMt7SnoU
— Adam Rippon (@AdamRippon) October 3, 2020
When I was sick from Covid, there were people who tweeted they wished I died from it. You didn’t remove their tweets and nothing happened to their accounts. https://t.co/fjngDBg3dg
— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) October 3, 2020
Weeks of death threats and serious threats against my family when I was Children's Laureate resulted in Twitter doing bugger all about it. *side-eyes in Black woman* https://t.co/pKsvH1OVNu
— Malorie Blackman is mostly away (@malorieblackman) October 3, 2020
Almost every time I've spoken about suicide or shared my story on this platform I've had DMs and comments telling me to kill myself, or that people wish I'd died, but when I report them they don't break your rules. But now captain fash is ill you do this? OK. https://t.co/bVOCfn177S
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) October 3, 2020
Me looking at the 5 years of death threats, rape threats, impersonators that I've collected all by myself since 2015.
And I still consider my twitter experience fairly pleasant and manageable compared to many other women and queer people https://t.co/uw32cJ5OEF
— Michelle Yesudas ???? (@MichelleYesudas) October 3, 2020
you "found no violation of the Twitter rules" when a person told me they wanted to send my family to Auschwitz. those tweets stayed up. https://t.co/OFiI5z576N
— Aditya Mukerjee, the Otterrific ???? ????️???? (@chimeracoder) October 3, 2020
Some of the most high profile critiques of Twitter’s statement came from the four U.S. Democratic progressive congresswomen known colloquially as “The Squad,” which includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. The women have all spoken out about the threats they receive on social media and criticised Twitter for not doing enough to address this behaviour, per CNN.
“So… you mean to tell us you could’ve done this the whole time?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
Omar, meanwhile, had no words, so she responded with a meme of a character from the show Parks and Recreation looking incredulous. Pressley was similarly gobsmacked, and told Twitter to DM her. Tlaib said what a lot us are thinking: “Seriously though, this is messed up.”
Gizmodo reached out to Twitter for a comment on the backlash its statement had generated. Twitter directed Gizmodo to its official statement on the matter that @TwitterSafety released on Saturday. It also told Gizmodo that users who experience any form of abuse or harassment should report it immediately.
“We hear the voices who feel that we’re enforcing some policies inconsistently. We agree we must do better, and we are working together inside to do so,” Twitter said. “We’ll continue to respond to concerns about our enforcement through action, not empty words.”
Twitter added in the statement that it had taken significant steps to address tweets that violated its policies on abuse without people having to report it, and it claimed that more than 50% of abuse is detected through automated systems. It highlighted the fact that it was giving people “more control over their experience,” including deciding who can reply to tweets.
“Twitter being abused to instill fear, to silence your voice, or to undermine individual safety, is unacceptable,” the company said.
While Twitter may say this behaviour is unacceptable, it is not new. Although I use Twitter frequently, I scroll through it gingerly. Cautiously. Many times, I avoid reading replies to tweets I interact with because I honestly don’t want to see hateful or violent crap. I shudder at the thought of what others, including my dear colleagues and friends, have to deal with.
It’s time for common decency to be the rule, not the exception, and not only on Twitter, but on all social media platforms. Because while the people that deliver such abuse are despicable, the ones who permit it and act like nothing’s wrong don’t have clean hands either. In fact, they might be worse.