Twitter’s decision to label Trump tweets was two years in the making

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Twitter’s decision this week to label President Donald Trump’s tweets for the first time appeared to the world as a quick-response salvo in an escalating battle between Silicon Valley and Washington. But the tiny labels were actually two years in the making as the company grappled with a double standard for politicians.

That resulted in a fact-check label on a misleading tweet about mail-in ballots, and then, on Friday, a label on a tweet about the Minnesota protests explaining that the tweet violated the company’s rules. It was a culmination of a series of quiet and incremental processes intended to dismantle a long-standing exception that the social media industry has made for the speech of politicians, say two Twitter employees, who spoke anonymously out of concern that they could be targeted by opponents of the new policies.

The company’s actions have subsequently become a flash point for a polarized country and have opened the floodgates for unprecedented regulation of the tech industry.

Like many changes in Silicon Valley, Twitter’s reconsideration of its practices has its roots in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when social media companies were held to task by Congress and the public for allowing rampant abuse of their platforms by Russian operatives and purveyors of false stories.

Long before Trump’s use of the platform for controversial statements, Twitter users, and particularly women and people of color, had also complained about the company doing nothing when they complained of harassment and abuse.

In late 2017, a month after congressional hearings on social media and Russian meddling, a period of soul-searching began across social media companies. The following year, Facebook launched a major fact-checking effort and hired tens of thousands of content moderators to police its service. Twitter began purging large numbers of fake accounts, banned “dehumanizing speech” against certain categories of users, and embarked on a broad effort to solicit public comment about its speech policies.

But as the companies became more aggressive in policing their services and setting rules, they continued to exempt politicians, arguing that their comments were too “newsworthy” to censor.

Among the thousands of responses Twitter received, one of the most common was that the public felt that Twitter – a company whose founders believed in a completely hands off approach to free speech – should not have two categories of rules, one for politicians and one for everyone else.

At the same time, public events also began to shape Twitter’s thinking. World leaders, such as President Trump in the U.S. and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, used the platform as a preferred communication channel, and their comments ran up against the company’s new willingness to punish tweets that were dehumanizing, bullying, or causing real-world harm, one of the people said.

Twitter executives also watched as Facebook struggled to respond to criticism that military leaders and government officials used violent social media posts to incite a genocide in Myanmar. The events in Myanmar solidified a growing feeling that exceptions should not be made for leaders, the person said.

The problem, however, was that, unlike Facebook, which has invested millions in a fact-checking effort, Twitter didn’t have any fact-checking at all. The company only had two black-and-white modes to deal with content: leave it up or take it down. In 2019, policy teams sought to clarify how the company would find a middle ground between those two poles.

The executives decided on labels. In 2019, The Washington Post first reported that Twitter planned to label content by world leaders or public officials that broke its policies. Twitter would still leave that content up because it was newsworthy. But they would attach a label to it.

Once executives on the company’s Trust and Safety team decided on labels as a strategy, they tasked technologies to build the code into Twitter’s service, which took another several months, one of the people said.

Last fall, the company used the labels a few times for comments by politicians outside the U.S.. Then it said it would apply fact-checking labels to manipulated media, and did so for a manipulated video Trump retweeted about Joe Biden. Then the company said this month that it would apply fact-check labels to misinformation about covid-19.

This week, Twitter slapped a label on Trump himself for the first time.

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