Much has been said of President Trump’s attack on four American women of color who happen to also be members of Congress. Far fewer words have been shared, however, on Twitter’s continued failure to enforce its own hate speech policy and how the platform is used to stoke racial animus and division.
Twitter’s inaction is disquieting because it reminds us just how inauthentic corporations can be on matters of social justice. It is also troubling to observe just how easy it is to do nothing when the difference between right and wrong stares back at you in 280 characters.
Twenty years ago, before there was Twitter, I was an intern in Seattle staffing an event with Nelson Mandela, the South African leader imprisoned for 27 years because he rightly believed ending apartheid was the right thing to do.
I had just visited South Africa as an exchange student and I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of standing in the same room as this remarkable figure.
It’s hard to recall much of what Mandela said, but one thing has stuck with me all these years. To paraphrase, he said there will come a time in your life when you will have to decide which side of history you want to be on. At some point, you may be asked to tell your story. What will your answer be?
In my mind, there is no question President Trump’s tweet instructing four Americans to go back to their countries – three of whom were born in America – was racist. However, what has been deeply troubling to watch is just how expertly, and with relative ease, Twitter (and other social media platforms) spread messages of hate and racism to millions of people in America and around the world.
Twitter’s answer for this is their hateful conduct policy. While nicely worded, it falls far short, in any sense of legitimate enforcement, specifically when it comes to the president.
Twitter, of course, has given its justification (a "global public conversation") for why it will not limit the president’s speech. But certainly, there is a line that cannot be crossed. And one might have imagined it was.
Let’s evaluate the president’s tweets compared to Twitter’s policy.
....and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
Here, in part, is Twitter’s hateful conduct policy:
- "You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin…"
- "We prohibit targeting individuals with content intended to incite fear or spread fearful stereotypes…"
- "We prohibit targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes…"
We hardly need to imagine a hypothetical future to see how venomous Trump’s tweets are or how they are being weaponized. We see it unfold and play out in real time and it is both shocking and frightful.
At a rally five days after the president’s tweet, a crowd of Trump supporters chanted "send her back, send her back." The chant was directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born refugee, naturalized U.S. citizen, and someone who has sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.
The crowd’s chant demonstrated just how easily a tweet can be used as a political cudgel by the president.
If it’s true companies do well by doing good, then Twitter has work to do. Heaps of data show that millennials and Gen Z gravitate towards causes, ethics and a sense of individual truth.
This represents a staggering earning and spending potential and Twitter appears to be missing just how important an authentic commitment to values is by allowing the president free rein of race-baiting and stoking social division on its platform.
Twitter has created a double-standard for a president not afraid to break norms and stoke the flames of racial division. We don’t need to wait 27 years to ask, what was Twitter’s role at this moment in American history. As members of society, as those who use their platform, we should be asking Twitter which side of history do you want to be on.
Sadly, Twitter has made its choice and it’s the wrong one.
But that doesn’t mean Twitter can’t change. By enforcing its hateful conduct policy and censoring the president, it will make history for finally doing what we all know is right.
I suspect a future generation of users will take notice.
Eric Hollister Williams is managing principal at Precision Strategies and a former Democratic staff director for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.