In an ongoing expansion of its policy towards “hateful conduct”, Twitter has announced a new rule forbidding “dehumanising” language. The rule, however, will apply only to language that dehumanises others on the basis of religion.
The specific guideline, which took nearly a year to develop, states that users “may not dehumanize groups based on their religion, as these remarks can lead to offline harm.”
Twitter’s examples of comments that would be removed included references relating religious groups to rats, maggots, viruses and animals.
The move represents a scaling back of Twitter’s initial policy, which originally was much wider in scope and included any “language that treats others as less than human” by way of “animalistic” or “mechanistic” comparisons. Significant backlash from users, who maintained the policy was undercooked and far too broad, forced the company to refine its approach.
“While we have started with religion, our intention has always been and continues to be an expansion to all protected categories,” Jerrel Peterson, Twitter’s head of safety policy, said in an interview with the New York Times. “We just want to be methodical.”
“We get one shot to write a policy that has to work for 350 million people who speak 43-plus languages while respecting cultural norms and local laws,” Mr. Peterson said. “It’s incredibly difficult, and we can’t do it by ourselves. We realized we need to be really small and specific.”
The project to weed out undesirable behaviour started back in August last year after Twitter remained the only major tech company that didn’t ban InfoWars host Alex Jones from its platform. The likes of Apple, Google and Facebook had removed Jones’s content from their platforms based on his alleged role in the spread of misinformation and for contravening “hate speech” policies the various tech companies hold.
The expunging of Jones and other “extremists” proved to be fraught with controversy, as the tech behemoths became entangled in debate about their role in moderating what can and can’t be said in the public arena. Accusations of bias were made as the majority of newly exiled social media profiles were all owned by political pundits from the right.
Twitter, eventually buckled under pressure, removed Jones and Co. and decided to undertake a several-month-long introspective dive into the meaning of dehumanisation.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said of the fallout after not-banning and then subsequently banning Alex Jones, “that safety should come first.”
He then shunted the job of actually deciding what characterises “dehumanising” language and how on earth they would police its use onto the company’s legal, policy and safety teams, led by Vijaya Gadde. A Twitter spokesperson said that Dorsey preferred a hands-off approach and wanted to empower Ms. Gadde to make the decisions.
The move has been criticised and lauded equally, as either being not enough or far too much. Civil rights groups that agree with the move, argue it doesn’t go far enough to protect other vulnerable groups such as racial and ethnic minorities and people who identify as LGBTQI. Users and free speech advocates point to the move as further evidence corporate giants are increasingly involved in the policing of online speech.
Next Thursday will see the White House social media summit, where the subject of online free speech will no doubt be hotly debated. President Trump has repeatedly stated social media giants are working to censor conservative viewpoints online, including during a recent interview with Fox Business, where he claimed Google was intending to try and rig the upcoming 2020 election. The high-profile summit is proving to be controversial for its list of attendees, which includes Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, who recently secretly filmed a top Google executive talking about intervening in elections and “preventing the next Trump situation”, and cartoonist Ben Garrison, who has come under the scrutiny of groups like the Southern Poverty Law Centre and Anti-defamation league for publishing cartoons that include hateful text and imagery.
Notably absent from the guest list: Google, Facebook and Twitter.