Plastered in bold letters on the top of Twitter‘s help page reads “The Twitter Rules,” the title presenting its “authoritative” set of guidelines like a list of commandments for navigating the hellscape that is social media.
It’s a page that’s been linked and referenced time and again as journalists and concerned users dissect every word, looking for answers to explain the social network’s seemingly unpredictable behavior.
But those rules, mostly sound in description—albeit, a bit vague—aren’t what’s caused outrage for the past few months. It’s Twitter’s obvious, infuriating inconsistencies in enforcing them.
With the promise of new rules on the horizon, can Twitter save itself—or will its worst tendencies have the final word?
Controversy with no end in sight
Twitter has faced a maelstrom of criticism over the last few months stemming from several high-profile controversies. A look at only the most recent incidents starts with President Donald Trump‘s threat to North Korea, a clear violation of Twitter’s terms of service.
Violent threats (direct or indirect): You may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.
Users rightfully asked for punishment against Trump, some wanting an outright ban while the more sympathetic simply demanded the tweet be deleted. In a surprise move, Twitter contradicted its now infamous policy on not commenting on individual accounts for “privacy and security reasons.” In what sounded like a defense found in a media law textbook, Twitter said it would keep Trump’s tweet on its site because it was “newsworthy” and “in the public interest,” a rule it claims has been an internal policy at the company.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
If its decision not to act fanned the flames of criticism for its failure to address abuse, then its explanation dumped gasoline on it. Twitter users grew furious, pointing out that its mysterious new rule gave the president free reign to say what he’d like. More importantly, it undermined the rules Twitter had turned to for years to address similar controversies.
Twitter back-tracked again last week when it banned a campaign ad video from Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in which she claimed to have helped stop the “sale of baby body parts” from abortions by defunding Planned Parenthood. Twitter told the Blackburn campaign that the ad contained an “inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.”
Inappropriate content in advertising: Inflammatory or provocative content which is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction
But Twitter didn’t ban the video, it only refused to sell her the space for promotion. The same clip, containing the same “inflammatory statement,” remained on Blackburn’s personal Twitter account for everyone to see. If you’re not already confused, Twitter then decided to reverse its decision and allow the ad to be promoted through its platform, again in violation of the rules posted on its site.
Now, users are calling for a boycott of Twitter after it suspended actress-turned-activist Rose McGowan, who became a leading voice against Harvey Weinstein after his alleged history of sexual assault and rape came to light. After singling out Ben Affleck and demanding the entire board of Weinstein Company resign, McGowan revealed on Instagram that Twitter had limited her account.
“TWITTER HAS SUSPENDED ME,” she wrote. “THERE ARE POWERFUL FORCES AT WORK. BE MY VOICE.”
A few hours later, Twitter released a message claiming it suspended McGowan because one of her tweets included a phone number. The tweet was then removed and her account was reinstated. But there are deep cracks in Twitter’s reasoning; for example, why didn’t it suspend Fox News anchor Lou Dobbs when he posted the phone number and address of a woman who accused Trump of sexual assault?
Those examples all happened within three weeks of each other, marking the latest string of controversies to befell a social network considered by some to be a “honeypot for assholes.”
How can Twitter turn things around?
Despite being the platform the president uses to post inflammatory and inciting statements, Twitter’s user base in the United States is shrinking. It dropped from 70 million users to 68 million in the last quarter, an alarming decline that led to an immediate collapse in its stock price. While there could be several reasons for that decline—a lack of innovation, competition, or restrictions placed on users, for starters—abuse is the problem at the top of everyone’s list.
Take British singer-songwriter and Game of Thrones-cameoed Ed Sheeran, for example. Sheeran recently revealed that he quit Twitter because of abuse. “I’ve actually come off Twitter completely,” he told the Sun. “I can’t read it. I go on it and there’s nothing but people saying mean things. One comment ruins your day. But that’s why I’ve come off it.” He’s one of many celebrities who has left the social network in the past few years because of abuse. Without celebrities, Twitter’s appeal likely diminishes for many users.
But it’s not too late to turn things around. Despite its crumbling reputation, Twitter still has a userbase of more than 300 million users and a platform that hasn’t yet been copied.
If it wants to keep those users around, Twitter will need to clarify its rules and do a better job training those who enforce them. That could mean hiring a leader with the gumption to take on the incessant abuse that’s plagued the site for years.
We're taking a completely new approach to abuse on Twitter. Including having a more open & real-time dialogue about it every step of the way https://t.co/a1SV7URPEK
— jack (@jack) January 31, 2017
Most importantly, Twitter’s decisions need to apply equally to all of its users, regardless of their political position or celebrity status. Its apparent double standards can’t continue to exist if it wants to welcome in new users and convince them to post their thoughts on its network instead of the countless alternatives.
But Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, already know this. “We do need to do a better job at showing that we are not selectively applying rules,” he wrote. And on Friday night, he vowed to do just that.
In a series of eight tweets, Dorsey wrote:
“We see voices being silenced on Twitter every day. We’ve been working to counteract this for the past 2 years. We prioritized this in 2016. We updated our policies and increased the size of our teams. It wasn’t enough. In 2017 we made it our top priority and made a lot of progress. Today we saw voices silencing themselves and voices speaking out because we’re *still* not doing enough. We’ve been working intensely over the past few months and focused today on making some critical decisions. We decided to take a more aggressive stance in our rules and how we enforce them. New rules around: unwanted sexual advances, non-consensual nudity, hate symbols, violent groups, and tweets that glorifies violence. These changes will start rolling out in the next few weeks. More to share next week.”
Twitter is stuck in an awkward transition period between allowing trolls to take over its platform and putting its foot down on what it successfully outlined in its set of rules. If its next step doesn’t address the inconsistencies in how it enforces its policies—and do so in a way that drastically cuts down harassment and abuse on its platform—it won’t stand a chance.