In the halcyon days when people were still optimistic about social media’s power to do good in the world, they would point to moments like the “Arab Spring”—a time when private citizens regularly used Twitter as a tool to report accurately on what was happening under tyrannical regimes. Citizen-journalists have recorded many instances of official and unofficial police abuse and crimes on phones, even in more geopolitical situations. For example, this was the way we watched George Floyd’s death: through bystander footage, which is not vetted professionally.
That kind of journalism was made possible by Twitter. You can see what is happening almost immediately, even events that involve identifiable but non-famous humans caught up in being themselves. Yet the site just announced a new policy, in the name of “privacy,” that if consistently applied would destroy this value —and if InconsistentIf it were to be applied, which will naturally happen, Twitter’s ability to control what information is sent its users would become more dangerous.
The details—announced, perhaps coincidentally, right after Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO seat—start off with the kind of framing that Twitter knows will ring the bell of the currently dominant media professionals:
Shared personal media (images and videos) can lead to privacy violations, as well as emotional or physical harm. Although misuse of private information can impact everyone, the effects on activists, journalists, dissidents and other members of minority groups can be more severe. When we receive a report that a Tweet contains unauthorized private media, we will now take action…
Our existing policies are: Twitter Rules cover explicit instances of abusive behaviorThis update allows us to act on shared media without explicit abusive content, as long as it is not posted with the permission of the individual depicted. It is part of our ongoing effort to align our policies. safety policies with human rights standardsIt will become effective globally as soon as possible, starting immediately.
It then claimed that the company has been banning tweets that reveal private people’s addresses and identity documents. It now says that you could also be violating the law by simply sharing media of private people without permission.
If someone doesn’t want to be in a photo or video circulating on Twitter—perhaps someone committing a crime or otherwise participating in a public action of obvious newsworthiness—then Twitter says now that “When we are notified by individuals depicted, or by an authorized representative, that they did not consent to having their private image or video shared, we will remove it.”
It leaves out a vague, judgment-ridden exception that “when media or accompanying Tweet text is shared in the general interest or contribute value to public discourse.” The company says, “We acknowledge that account holders might share images or videos about private individuals in order to help someone in crisis, such as after a violent or public event. These risks may outweigh the safety of the individual.”
It Might. Twitter continues: “we would take into consideration whether the image is publicly available and/or is being covered by mainstream/traditional media (newspapers, TV channels, online news sites), or if a particular image and the accompanying tweet text adds value to the public discourse, is being shared in public interest, or is relevant to the community.”
The policy will strengthen the grip traditional media companies have on public minds, something that even decentalized communication tools such as Twitter were meant to avoid. Twitter appears less concerned with disrupting legacy media’s control over our information flow and is more focused on aggressively making sure its corporate judgements overwhelm users’ desires to share or get information that they may not be able access elsewhere. Although Twitter is not the only social network that works, we can be sure of their collusion with tech companies if they try to ban practices or ideas they don’t like.
Do you think this policy will lead to the demise of the “private person being an asshole and being dragged across the globe because somebody shoved a camera into their face?” This probably accounts for about a third or more of Twitter’s users love. It sounds like it would, but that will depend on Twitter’s views about how the behavior is perceived and what attitudes or expressions are discouraged.
Twitter was already an imperfect and clumsy machine, unable to properly manage its user’s messages and to vet them. It seems that Twitter is signaling to the world that legacy media have the power to define the public discourse by enshrining this policy.