In the early morning hours of May 29 2020, President Trump published two tweets about unrest in Minneapolis over the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd; Twitter later appended a label to the second over its glorification of violence:
‘When the Looting Starts, the Shooting Starts’
In the tweets, Trump said:
“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right…..
“….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!
On the morning of May 29 2020, the second tweet displayed with a platform-wide message indicating the tweet violated Twitter’s terms of service — and explaining why it was not removed:
That message read:
This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible. [Learn more.]
Alongside the note about Trump’s tweet “glorifying violence,” the label explained that Twitter “determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain” visible to users. A linked Twitter Help Center Page titled “About public-interest exceptions on Twitter” further addressed, in general, tweets in violation of the site’s terms of service found to be potentially of public interest:
Defining the public interest
Twitter generally actions Tweets that violate our rules. However, we recognize that sometimes it may be in the public interest to allow people to view Tweets that would otherwise be taken down. We consider content to be in the public interest if it directly contributes to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern.
At present, we limit exceptions to one critical type of public-interest content—Tweets from elected and government officials—given the significant public interest in knowing and being able to discuss their actions and statements.
Twitter noted that although the tweets so handled — typically those from members of world governments — remained visible, they were restricted from any sort of engagement in the form of likes or retweets, which meant that restricted but visible tweets were not promoted by Twitter itself or by platform users:
As a result, in rare instances, we may choose to leave up a Tweet from an elected or government official that would otherwise be taken down. Instead we will place it behind a notice providing context about the rule violation that allows people to click through to see the Tweet. Placing a Tweet behind this notice also limits the ability to engage with the Tweet through likes, Retweets, or sharing on Twitter, and makes sure the Tweet isn’t algorithmically recommended by Twitter. These actions are meant to limit the Tweet’s reach while maintaining the public’s ability to view and discuss it. Learn more about this notice and other enforcement actions.
Twitter’s published explanation of tweets like Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” statement was extensive, and it involved a multi-step process of evaluating and identifying content both in violation of Twitter rules and in the public’s interest. The page also indicated that it did not amount to an ability for parties identified in those guidelines to tweet any and all content they wished:
The public interest exception does not mean that any eligible public official can Tweet whatever they want, even if it violates the Twitter Rules. When deciding whether to remove a Tweet or place it behind a notice, we weigh the potential risk and severity of harm against the public-interest value of the Tweet. Where the risk of harm is higher and/or more severe, we are less likely to make an exception. We are more likely to apply the notice to a violative Tweet if:
- The Tweet is directed at other government or elected officials or institutions as part of a public debate or call to protest;
- There is a larger point to the Tweet that is relevant to the author or target’s public role;
- The Tweet adds significant context to ongoing geopolitical events or issues; or
- There is significant documentary or accountability value in preserving the content as a matter of public record.
We are more likely to remove the Tweet without applying the notice if:
- The Tweet includes a declarative call to action that could harm a specific individual or group;
- The Tweet shares information or engages in behavior that could directly interfere with an individual’s exercise of their fundamental rights.
That Help Center article also indicated “glorifying violence” was one of several violations, and shared a generalized version of the label. Finally, Twitter described how infrequent its use of labels like the one appended to Trump’s tweet actually were:
We have very rarely invoked the public-interest exception – less than five times in 2018. This is new territory for everyone – a service being used by world leaders to communicate directly to their constituents or other leaders, and at times, announce policy – and every decision we make sets a new precedent.
Previously on ‘Trump Versus Twitter’
A concurrent and unrelated dispute between Trump and Twitter was ongoing at the time of the labeled tweet. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Twitter began adding “fact check” labels to some of Trump’s tweets around May 26 2020:
Twitter on [May 28 2020] added new fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets, even as the Trump administration prepared an executive order to curtail the legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for the content posted on their platforms.
Twitter’s move escalated the confrontation between the company and President Trump, who has fulminated this week over actions taken by his favorite social media service.
Twitter on [May 26 2020] had appended fact-checking labels for the first time to two of Mr. Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots, refuting their accuracy. In response, Mr. Trump accused Twitter of stifling speech and declared that he would put a stop to the interference.
Since then, White House officials have drafted an executive order that would make it easier for federal regulators to argue that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are suppressing free speech when they move to suspend users or delete posts. The executive order may come as early as [May 28 2020].
On Twitter, those tweets received labels but not ratings:
To the right of a circled exclamation point, text read: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” Clicking it led to a link on Twitter:
Above two tweets from @TwitterSafety was the following text:
Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud
On [May 26 2020], President Trump made a series of claims about potential voter fraud after California Governor Gavin Newsom announced an effort to expand mail-in voting in California during the COVID-19 pandemic. These claims are unsubstantiated, according to CNN, Washington Post and others. Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.
One of the two tweets linked to Twitter’s “Civic integrity policy,” and the tweets read:
“We added a label to two @realDonaldTrump Tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans as part of our efforts to enforce our civic integrity policy. We believe those Tweets could confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process.”
“We also wanted to provide additional context and conversation with regard to voter fraud and mail-in ballots. We have a range of remediations, and in some cases we add labels that link to more context.”
Clicking a second time to the Twitter Help Center page led to a message about Twitter resolving not to allow any parties to interfere with the 2020 Election:
You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process.
The public conversation occurring on Twitter is never more important than during elections and other civic events. Any attempts to undermine the integrity of our service is antithetical to our fundamental rights and undermines the core tenets of freedom of expression, the value upon which our company is based.
We believe we have a responsibility to protect the integrity of those conversations from interference and manipulation. Therefore, we prohibit attempts to use our services to manipulate or disrupt civic processes, including through the distribution of false or misleading information about the procedures or circumstances around participation in a civic process.
Twitter said of Trump’s tweets that parties “may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes,” in this case to misdirect or misinform the public about lawful use of ballots in primaries and the general election.
Clearly, the two controversies were mostly separate, related only because they had to do with Twitter and because Twitter’s actions angered the president. In fact, on the same day, Trump lobbed the same claim at Twitter — alleging that the platform was “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election”:
The White House’s Twitter Account Weighs in
After Twitter added the “glorifying violence” label to Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet, @WhiteHouse blamed “fact-checkers” for that label — again, a circumstance completely separate from what happened on May 26 2020:
It should be noted that the tweet was not labeled for any reason related to its veracity, but due to a separate violation of Twitter Rules, namely its “Safety” policy:
The Twitter Rules
Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation. Violence, harassment and other similar types of behavior discourage people from expressing themselves, and ultimately diminish the value of global public conversation. Our rules are to ensure all people can participate in the public conversation freely and safely.
Violence: You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence. Learn more about our violent threat and glorification of violence policies.
Clicking “Learn more” led to a broader policy, and another link to Twitter’s “Glorification of violence policy,” which began:
Glorification of violence policy [March 2019]
You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence.
Glorifying violent acts could inspire others to take part in similar acts of violence. Additionally, glorifying violent events where people were targeted on the basis of their protected characteristics (including: race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease) could incite or lead to further violence motivated by hatred and intolerance. For these reasons, we have a policy against content that glorifies acts of violence in a way that may inspire others to replicate those violent acts and cause real offline harm, or events where members of a protected group were the primary targets or victims.
What is in violation of this policy?
Under this policy, you can’t glorify, celebrate, praise or condone violent crimes, violent events where people were targeted because of their membership in a protected group, or the perpetrators of such acts. We define glorification to include praising, celebrating, or condoning statements, such as “I’m glad this happened”, “This person is my hero”, “I wish more people did things like this”, or “I hope this inspires others to act”.
To recap, Trump’s labeled tweet found to be in violation of Twitter’s prohibition of “glorifying violence” read:
….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!
Google’s News and Information Credibility Lead Alexios Mantzarlis implored reporters not to follow the White House’s lead and conflate the discrete matters about fact-checking tweets and removal or labeling of tweets glorifying violence while covering the issue:
On May 26 2020, Trump directed his wrath at Twitter and its chief executive officer Jack Dorsey, after the platform added information about mail-in ballots to two of his tweets. Controversy ensued. However, separate May 29 2020 tweets by Trump were labeled as “glorifying violence” by Twitter, leading the White House to inaccurately blame “fact-checkers” (in quotes) for the second label. According to Twitter, the second label was completely unrelated to veracity, or fact-checkers (whether from Twitter or from third-party outlets), and it was restricted — but not unpublished — due to the fact it incited violence against protesters.