Twitter has begun enforcing new guidelines on violent speech, but it seems like the fine line between free speech and death threats will remain fuzzy.
The guidelines prohibit accounts from violent speech, celebrating violent acts or affiliating with groups that promote violence against civilians—on or off Twitter's platform. The criteria for violent speech includes wishing disease upon someone, a fairly common crutch for cyberbullies and others who taunt people by posting messages such as "kill yourself" or "I hope you get cancer."
"You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people," Twitter's updated rules firmly declare. Offenders may be suspended or banned.
The company is trying to clean up amid weak user growth that's been partly attributed to the toxic commentary that it frequently hosts. (Warning: Examples follow.) A selection of tweets this year raise questions about drawing lines, however, and illustrate why Twitter has struggled to improve.
What happens when a Twitter user wishes that Sea World gets a disease, for example? Someone recently did. Is it forbidden to wish illness on an amusement park company?
Can a message advocate violence against a nation? What if it's your own nation? (Exaggerating for effect, possibly?)
What is and isn't abusive appears open to interpretation. Twitter is working with outside groups and a Trust and Safety Council to determine when an account is tied to a hate group or engaging in violent speech. It will also look at account bios for any hate speech, not just the account's messages, to determine whether an account should be penalized.
Are public figures fair game for crass vitriol? Politicians? Patriots wide receiver Rob Gronkowski?
A Twitter spokesman said the company would not comment on specific tweets.
Accounts of officials like President Trump enjoy wider latitude. Many users have called for Twitter to suspend or cancel the president's account for incendiary posts like his retweets of anti-Muslim video. On Monday, the account that originally tweeted the anti-Muslim video promoted by Trump was removed; Trump's @POTUS account was still online.
Twitter has continually maintained that Trump and political figures are given more leeway with their posts, because their words are newsworthy and official state pronouncements, basically. That reasoning stands intact after the changes Monday. "This policy does not apply to military or government entities and we will consider exceptions for groups that are currently engaging in (or have engaged in) peaceful resolution," Twitter's policy update says.