Policy

Twitter vowed to change its world leaders policy. Then came Elon.

Twitter solicited 49,000 public responses in the name of revamping the policy. So what changed?

Elon Musk wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses

So far, nothing has come of the significant feedback Twitter has received through its world leaders survey.

Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images

In March 2021, Jack Dorsey was preparing to face down yet another public flogging by Congress. A little over two months before, Twitter had banned former President Trump for life after the Jan. 6 riot for glorifying violence, and it seemed likely that Republican lawmakers would use the moment to make Twitter’s then-CEO pay for it.

But Dorsey had come prepared. Days before the hearing, in a conveniently timed announcement, Twitter said it was rethinking its entire approach to world leaders’ accounts. The company was seeking public input through a global survey, asking people to chime in on what rules world leaders should have to follow on Twitter and, just as importantly, what should happen when they break those rules. Dorsey touted the survey in his written testimony, making clear Twitter was open to change and that he was listening to people’s concerns.

The survey was open for about a month and garnered some 49,000 responses, vastly exceeding Twitter’s initial expectations. So what’s come of all that feedback? Nothing, so far.

More than a year since Twitter announced its survey, the company’s very public plan to reset its world leader policy appears to have accomplished little — except, perhaps, wasting a whole lot of people’s time. “Too often we get these announcements from tech companies, and they get the PR dividend at the time, but there’s little follow-up,” said Evelyn Douek, a Harvard Law School lecturer who specializes in content moderation policy.

In this case, it’s not hard to guess why. Not only has Twitter undergone a major leadership change since Dorsey’s departure last year, but it now faces an on-again, off-again acquisition bid from a mercurial billionaire whose main goals in acquiring Twitter seem to be banning bots, scrapping Twitter’s rules and restoring the accounts of anyone who ever fell afoul of them — Trump included.

Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy wouldn’t comment on whether Elon Musk’s pending acquisition has had an effect on efforts to revamp the world leaders policy. But Kennedy said the company is still distilling the results of the survey and considering “next steps.” “During this process, we've also engaged experts, including NGOs, governments, academics and civil society to ensure we’re hearing as many diverse and thoughtful perspectives as possible,” Kennedy said.

Twitter’s approach to world leaders has been tested repeatedly since before the company even had a public written policy for them. Back in 2017, when Trump was taunting Kim Jong Un with threats that North Korea “won’t be around much longer,” Twitter claimed the tweet fell under a “newsworthiness exception.” Two years later, the company spelled out its policy for world leaders more explicitly, explaining how it weighs the public interest against rule violations.

The Jan. 6 riot tested the policy once more, forcing Twitter to reckon with the possibility of online speech stoking real-world violence. “Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all,” Dorsey tweeted at the time, explaining the decision to ban Trump. “That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.”

The survey was supposed to give people a chance to assess how they would respond to different content moderation scenarios: What to do about a U.S. governor spreading COVID-19 misinformation about another country? How about a representative for another country’s legislature tweeting hate speech about your home country? What if it was the person’s first violation? What if it was their fifth? What if it came from their personal account? What if it didn’t?

“Ultimately, our aim is to have a policy that appropriately balances fundamental human rights and considers the global context in which we operate,” the company said in the blog post announcing the survey.

Not everyone was convinced a public survey was the best way to go about that. “I had reservations at the time about the idea of crowdsourcing something like this,” Douek said. “There's no guarantee that the group of people that reply will be in any way representative. They're likely to be a certain kind of very engaged and very vocal minority.”

That doesn’t mean public consultation isn’t important. “But being transparent about who is involved and how that input actually fed into results is crucial if it’s not going to just be performative,” Douek said.

Kennedy said Twitter has continued to apply the policy as written, but wouldn’t say whether or when changes to that policy are coming. Kennedy did point to the rollout of another recent policy aimed at curbing misinformation during crises, which will affect government accounts.

The company’s halting progress can’t all be blamed on Musk, of course. The survey had been closed for a year by the time Musk announced his plan to acquire the company, and over the course of that year, the relationship between tech platforms and global governments has arguably only become more complicated. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine have forced all social media platforms to reassess how they engage with accounts linked to those governments.

But it’s clear Musk’s chaotic bid to take Twitter private has thrown everything from Twitter’s platform policies to its leadership structure into a state of uncertainty. In the last few months, Twitter has bled top talent, frozen hiring and rescinded job offers. The company’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, has told employees privately that even he doesn’t know “which direction the platform will go” after the deal closes — if it closes.

If the deal does go through, it’s unclear how much all this public input will even matter. Musk has already stated his intention to restore Trump’s account and take a minimalist approach to content moderation, and now Dorsey appears to agree. Last month, he tweeted as much, saying that the Trump ban was “a business decision.”

“It shouldn’t have been,” Dorsey wrote. “And we should always revisit our decisions and evolve as necessary.”

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