BuzzFeed News has learned that Twitter’s Trust and Safety Team doesn’t have the ability to remove or block individual tweets; it can only take action on accounts. That’s why Twitter disabled key features of actor Rose McGowan’s account on Wednesday night after she posted a private phone number on Twitter.
The action disabled McGowan’s ability to tweet, retweet, and like anything on Twitter at a critical moment: She had been using the platform to detail the alleged sexual misconduct of film mogul Harvey Weinstein, and to call for repercussions for such behavior and those who enable it.
When McGowan published a tweet in violation of Twitter’s rules, the company’s Trust and Safety team’s only option was to silence her entire account until she deleted the single tweet. McGowan did so and was initially told she’d have to wait 12 hours for full functionality to be restored, but someone from Twitter apparently intervened and restored her full functionality.
Sources familiar with Twitter’s Trust and Safety operations and the thinking behind its policies say this heavy-handed protocol is intentional. “It’s not just a technical bit, it’s that’s the way the Twitter policy is drawn up,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News.But it’s clear that the policy has major holes in it. After a number of Twitter users expressed shock that McGowan had been restricted while some legitimate trolls and harassers often go undisciplined, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey publicly admitted the company needs to do more explaining when it takes down accounts. “We do need to do a better job at showing that we are not selectively applying rules,” Dorsey said.
For the platform’s critics, the McGowan restriction is confirmation of a fundamental disconnect between Twitter’s harassment prevention tools and the realities of policing the social network. Many of the company’s terms of service rules and abuse prevention tools feel like relics of a different, smaller Twitter, before the service became the beating heart of breaking news and a chaotic political battleground.
The frustration surrounding McGowan’s experience is magnified by countless of stories of Twitter dismissing reports of clear-cut harassment. Though Twitter pledged to do better in 2017, BuzzFeed News has compiled dozens of instances of valid reports of harassment that were dismissed as not violating Twitter’s rules. Similarly, Twitter’s enforcement of its rules continues to be inconsistent and its justifications for taking or not taking action are equally opaque. Earlier this month, when conspiracy theorist Alex Jones tweeted out a graphic, unconfirmed image of the alleged Vegas shooter’s body in a pool of blood, Twitter kept the photo up — adding a sensitive image tag — under its “newsworthiness” clause. The social network gave the same “newsworthiness” reason for not intervening when president Trump tweeted late last month at North Korea, a gesture the country called “an act of war.” While each situation is unique, critics of the platform have viewed Twitter as grasping for reasons to find leniency in some cases while being exceptionally quick to suspend accounts in other instances.
Twitter declined to comment.
Some observers feel the company should rethink the system. “What would Twitter have to lose in completely blowing up their whole approach to trust and safety?” a former Twitter employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not more transparency, it’s the fucking rules. The interpretation of the rules and clarity of the rules. I don’t see what the company would have to lose at this point by completely re-drafting the policy.”
One consideration for Twitter is the company doesn’t want to be seen as making editorial decisions, a person with knowledge of the company’s Trust and Safety team told BuzzFeed News.
But silencing an entire account until a tweet is removed instead of removing that tweet itself could also be Twitter’s way of rationalizing that it’s not really removing that content. And in this case, the system it designed blew up in its face.