Stop holding “world leaders” to a lower standard than everyone else.
I have a twitter account (@LegalNoise). I use it to share information that I believe is accurate and worthwhile. Some people use twitter for other reasons beyond trying to share what they may believe to be accurate information: entertainment, social interaction, disinformation, and hatred. Twitter has lots of policies about what it allows, disallows, tags, or limits via blocked likes or retweets. Certainly many tweets are questionable, and twitter may or may not remove them.
Perhaps it’s not clear whether some of the posts that may be questionable or offensive to one or another user have actually violated Twitter’s policies. To me, the question is not whether a post is allowable under the policies, but rather whether the policies are allowing too many questionable posts. Perhaps the answer is no, but I’d prefer the question be asked without pre-supposing that the policies are correct. Regardless of one’s political views, or whether one likes or dislikes any individual, the issue that is most disturbing to me is Twitter’s policy of making exceptions for “world leaders” to say things that non-world-leaders would not be allowed to say on their platform.
My Harvard colleague recently wrote a succinct summary of the goal of such an exception:
“Democracy is based on the idea that voters should have access to information about who their candidates really are and what they believe. This remains true even (or, perhaps, especially) when those beliefs are abhorrent.”“Trump Is a Problem That Twitter Cannot Fix”, Evelyn Douek at The Atlantic, May 27, 2020.
Saying that it may be in the public interest to allow otherwise removable content leaves out how doing so may also create public harm, and that there is a necessary balance depending on the posts and the context. The balance here is not about whether a post is tolerable — we are talking about posts that have already been determined by Twitter to be intolerable.
The issue is whether such intolerable posts give us sufficiently useful information about world leaders to warrant the harm they cause.
The notion that anyone on the platform be given a pass is questionable to me. It reminds me of the argument that we would not be allowed to convict a public figure for committing murder unless we first removed them from office. The notion of rule of law — in this case, rule of policy — is that it applies to everyone. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail highlighted that rules and laws that do not apply to everyone are the most suspect. The flip side of this is worth considering — if a statement by a world leader is allowable on the platform, then why can’t the rest of us say it also?
Public figures are responsible for setting tone and facilitating public debate in the marketplace of ideas. I believe that they should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. The current policy ignores many historic examples of societal breakdown, violence, and genocide resulting in part from public figure propaganda, such as in Rwanda (see this, this, and this, for example). The argument that public figures can take their comments elsewhere doesn’t excuse any particular platform from their own hurtful policies; where, then, do we start to raise the level of the debate and not rush to the bottom?
If there is an argument to be made that there is some benefit to giving some people a pass, then there is a counter argument that doing so also creates a problem. This issue goes away when we focus simply on the message and not the messenger. I have no idea how it helps me to see the ugly side of someone, if what really matters are the policies that are implemented. If someone is despicable, it will surface in policy implementation soon enough. Beyond that, I don’t know why I need to be exposed to someone’s darkness if doing so amplifies and spreads it.
Tagging content as counter to policy might seem helpful to some. To me, it’s just an easy way to find the exact obnoxious speech that someone might be looking for. What is Twitter expecting the readers of such a disclaimer to do? To be horrified and stop following the tweeter? Doesn’t that seem pollyannaish? Dog whistling is all about saying things at the edge of decency that are picked up and re-broadcast. I can’t believe that any type of disclaimer does any good other than wash the hands of Twitter to be able to say, “see, I didn’t do it — I put a NAUGHTY disclaimer!”. I don’t buy it.
If something is not ok for general users to say, than no one should be allowed to say it — bar none.