[FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a fan of Twitter, and Twitter Canada was a client of mine during Canada’s 2015 general election.]

Twitter has announced that it intends to identify selected tweets from world and political leaders, and political candidates who violate the social communication platform’s usage policies.

This is a long-overdue effort by the social network to “enforce” its Twitter Rules, which include (quoted here for convenience):

  • 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.
  • Terrorism/violent extremism: You may not threaten or promote terrorism or violent extremism. Learn more.
  • Abuse/harassment: You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm. Learn more.
  • Hateful conduct: You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. Learn more.

The announcement indicates that these new labels will apply to tweets of a “public interest” issued by users who meet the following criteria (quoted here for convenience):

  • Be or represent a government official, be running for public office, or be considered for a government position (i.e., next in line, awaiting confirmation, named successor to an appointed position);
  • Have more than 100,000 followers; and
  • Be verified.

Twitter’s approach to “solving” this problem is likely to cause the platform more problems than it already has. I was a guest of CTV News Channel earlier today for a three-minute segment about some of the potential issues. That’s a short amount of time for a surprisingly meaty topic. So, here’s a comprehensive list of points I went armed with, only a few of which could be properly raised without complicating the segment:

  1. This is too little, too late. Twitter’s inaction to address this problem years ago has turned a what was initially viewed as a minor issue into the new normal, a major issue for the platform. By doing so, it rendered its Rules irrelevant. I believe it will be very difficult for Twitter to make their rules un-irrelevant in the hopes of making them relevant and enforceable, again.
  2. Twitter’s plan will do little more than validate the points of view of the polarized political class. Twitter is doing little more than declaring agreement with those who are offended by the tweets, while concurrently validating the narrative of those who believe traditional and social media organizations are trying to shut them down. I watched some Fox News segments on the matter and found that the right-wing organization, its hosts and guests, view Twitter’s plans as nothing less than censorship. That’s a stretch. However, Twitter handed them a gift for their narrative and they’re running with it.
  3. We’re well past moderate commentary. Hyper-partisanship and political polarization form the bedrock of the “Age of Outrage.” You’re no-one if you’re not publicly outraged about something. Twitter is not likely to make much of a dent in this new culture it helped facilitate.
  4. Who defines “public interest?” I’m certain academics, researchers and the political class can make compelling arguments that the unfiltered thoughts and remarks of world leaders is definitely in the public interest, no matter how outrageous, offensive or volatile those thoughts and remarks may be.
  5. The chosen follower threshold only masks the problem. There are plenty of cities, communities and constituencies which offer politicians, candidates and community leaders dozens, hundreds, thousands or maybe even tens of thousands of followers to whom they can spew the kind of content Twitter is apparently trying to reduce. Twitter’s proposal seems to suggest an inconsistent application of the “public interest” test.
  6. The problematic content isn’t actually prevented or removed, it’s only labelled. Adopting a policy of sanitizing the platform of this content going forward will be viewed as censorship because it’s been given a free pass for so long already. For those at Fox who say the extra step of clicking to see the labelled content is interfering with access to their content, I remind you that even platforms like Fox News require users to click “play” to watch its videos.
  7. Twitter needs this content. Twitter, perhaps consciously, allowed the problematic content because it recognized the content amped up the platform’s relevance. They created the conditions to grow a monster they will never be able to tame. Put another way, the toothpaste is now out of the tube, and the tube was subsequently destroyed—a long time ago.

I’ll post a link to the interview when it is made live.