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How to moderate world leaders justifying violence (2020)

Summary: There is an inherent tension in handling content moderation of world leaders -- especially more controversial ones. If those leaders break the rules on social media, some reasonably call for the content, or the accounts, to be removed for violating policies. Others, however, point out that it is important for the public to be aware of what world leaders are saying, rather than removing and hiding the speech.

Twitter has had a public interest exception for tweets from world leaders since at least 2019. Under that policy, Twitter may choose to leave up some content from a world leader that the company admits violates its rules, under the belief that it is more important that the world know what that leader has said. Since 2019, Twitter announced that when it found such content, it would label it clearly -- publicly noting that it violated the company’s policies, but was being kept up due to the public interest.

The policy was put to the test in October 2020, following the murder of a teacher in a Paris suburb, after the teacher had shown students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad while discussing the controversy over such drawings. A week later, three people were stabbed in Nice, in southern France. French President Emmanuel Macron described both attacks as “Islamist terrorist attacks."

Soon after the latter attack, former prime minister of Malaysia Mahathir Bin Mohamad posted a Twitter thread discussing both attacks. While the thread touched on a variety of points, urged people not to scapegoat entire religions, and said he did not approve of the killings, the twelfth tweet raised many concerns by stating: "Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past."

Twitter posted its public interest notice on this particular tweet, noting that it violated Twitter’s rules about glorifying violence, but Twitter felt that it “may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible.”

Many disagreed with this decision, including French officials. France’s digital minister, Cédric O, claimed that if Twitter did not remove the tweet, it would make the company an “accomplice to a formal call for murder.”

Decisions to be made by Twitter:

  • What qualifies a tweet from a foreign leader that violates policies to remain up under a “public interest” exception?
  • Under what conditions would Twitter reverse this policy and remove tweets?
  • How much context should Twitter take into account regarding the tweets? That is, how much should the attacks in France play into the decision regarding this tweet?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Whether or not Twitter removes this particular tweet, it is likely to get attention and news coverage. How much does it matter whether or not Twitter removes or labels the particular tweet?
  • Should world leaders get special treatment by nature of their position and the fact that what they say can impact world events? 

Resolution: Twitter only kept the tweet up for a few hours before reversing course and deciding to remove the tweet entirely for violating its rules. Twitter did not comment on why it changed its position on this particular tweet, only telling the media that the tweet was removed for violating its policies on glorifying violence. The company chose not to explain why it initially qualified for a public interest exception, only to be changed later.

Written by The Copia Institute, March 2021

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