In a single day, two issues that loom large over Twitter — hate speech and President Donald Trump — had significant breakthroughs.
A panel of three federal judges unanimously ruled Tuesday that Trump is violating the First Amendment by blocking critics on Twitter, the platform he regularly uses to announce major policy decisions. The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirms a lower court’s ruling that updates the Consitution to today’s social media era.
A 2017 lawsuit filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University argued that Trump operates his Twitter account for government use, not just personal, and that preventing people he disagrees with from information is unconstitutional. The three judges agreed, saying he can’t exclude critics or shut down online dialogue he doesn’t care for.
The same morning, Twitter announced it would require the removal of tweets that target religious groups once reported to the company. The San Francisco-based company listed fake yet disturbing examples of such tweets that often compared a group to animals, viruses, and insects.
Tuesday’s announcement is an update to the September 2018 policy that simply prohibits dehumanization of “anyone based on membership in an identifiable group, as this speech can lead to offline harm.” Both moves were informed by researcher Susan Benesch, who called language that compares an identifiable group to animals or insects as “hallmark” of dangerous speech that can lead to violence.
Twitter asked for responses after the 2018 policy update and consistently found calls for clearer language around dehumanization, list specific examples, narrow down what “identifiable groups” is (i.e. religion), and to consistently enforce the policy.
“Twitter’s policy update is a very positive step in the right direction,” says Madihha Ahussain, counsel for Muslim Advocates. “Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and other religious minorities are often targeted with dangerous slurs and conspiracy theories and we applaud genuine efforts to remove this content from social media platforms. However, the effectiveness of this new policy will depend on how Twitter enforces it.”
It also remains to be seen how the courts or Twitter may force Trump to unblock critics and prevent him from blocking more accounts that disagree with him on the platform — and whether they’ll ever remove any of his own dehumanizing tweets.