Social media platform Twitter announced on Thursday that it will be rolling out a new program to "label" certain politicians' "vitriolic" tweets, allowing those lawmakers to stay on the site, but warning users to remain skeptical of their content.
The new policy affects lawmakers across the spectrum and appears aimed directly at President Donald Trump.
The Washington Post reports that Twitter will extend the "label" rule to any "verified political candidates and government officials" who have more than 100,000 followers, and is designed, Twitter says, to make its rules against "abusive behavior" uniformly applicable while still allowing Twitter users to access information Twitter believes is "in the public interest."
If it sounds like Twitter is about to embark on a new mode of censorship, that's because it is. Any tweet from a politician or government official found to be in violation of Twitter's vague policy against "abusive" language will be targeted and then dropped behind a dialogue box which warns users of the content and then requires them to click through to view the offending tweet.
The dialogue box will read, "The Twitter Rules about abusive behavior apply to this tweet. However, Twitter has determined it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain available.”
Twitter says it believes use of the policy will be "rare" and officials with the social media platform say the policy won't be retroactive.
“In the past, we’ve allowed certain tweets that violated our rules to remain on Twitter because they were in the public’s interest, but it wasn’t clear when and how we made those determinations,” Twitter said in a statement posted to its official company blog. “To fix that, we’re introducing a new notice that will provide additional clarity in these situations, and sharing more on when and why we’ll use it.”
The problem, of course, is that Twitter's guidelines are broad and the rules aren't uniformly enforced, so while Twitter may believe that it has a handle on exactly what constitutes "abusive" or "offensive" behavior, Twitter users — including the president himself — are left in the dark as to how to construct their tweets to stay within the rules.
Just this week, Congressional Republicans and the president spoke out against the platform's seemingly haphazard application of user guidelines, alleging that the site unfairly targets conservatives for suspension and removal from the platform and that Twitter responds to mob rule rather than to its own set of standards.
The president, of course, has something to worry about here. It's far more likely that Trump will become the target of a flag for "abusive behavior" than any of his Democratic colleagues — and the policy itself seems to come in response to widespread dissatisfaction with Twitter for not removing the president form the platform altogether.
Twitter has responded, regularly, by saying that the president's tweets — like all lawmakers' tweets — are a matter of "public interest" and that, regardless of how "abusive" they might become, public figures should be allowed to use the platform for communication. Indeed, a court agreed last year that the president's Twitter timeline is a method of protected communication from the White House, and determined that the president — or any other lawmaker — could not block another member of Twitter from seeing his or her tweets.
The answer as to why Twitter is taking this odd step may be more financial than anything, however.
The president's Twitter has a direct impact on both domestic and foreign policy, and Trump uses it as a tool to deliver quick messages not just to constituents but to corporations and foreign governments. Bloomberg News, for example, estimates that a tweet from the president can have an immediate impact on the stock market. Previously, Trump has used Twitter to set priorities with foreign governments like North Korea, and as a bargaining tool when negotiating trade deals (as during recent talks with Mexico).
But Twitter also benefits from the president's presence on the network. According to Fortune Magazine, one analyst familiar with the inner workings of the social media giant believes that Trump is worth approximately $2 billion to the company in market value — a fifth of the company's overall value. If the president suddenly stopped tweeting, or was banned from the network altogether, there would be a dramatic drop in both daily users of the social media platform, and the platform's stock value.
Now, instead, Trump will have to tangle with Twitter's censors.