Trump tests Twitter policies with Iran threats

Trump tests Twitter policies with Iran threats
© iStock / The Hill illustration

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE is dramatically testing the limits of Twitter’s policies against violence as he threatens Iran using one of the most powerful megaphones in the world: his Twitter account. 

Trump has spent days tweeting threats of violence and potential war crimes against Iran to his nearly 70 million followers amid an intensifying geopolitical conflict sparked by the administration’s decision to kill a top Iranian military official last week. 

But Twitter says the president’s tweets do not violate any of its rules, raising novel and high-stakes questions around whether a platform that explicitly bans violent threats and incitement should take action against tweets threatening war from world leaders.

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“When foreign leaders and Congress and his own administration learn about what’s going on in our country via the president’s Twitter account, we have run ourselves into a corner in foreign policy development that is dangerous,” said Dipayan Ghosh, a senior fellow with the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “And I hope that we can get ourselves out of it.” 

Twitter does maintain policies against explicit threats, inciting hatred against particular nationalities and using the platform to promote criminal activity. But it also says it does not want to censor any speech from top politicians, even when it is threatening or hateful.

The influential social media platform claims it is in the “public interest” to take a hands-off approach to speech by presidents and heads of state, often allowing politicians to flout Twitter rules that apply to everyday users.

There are some exceptions. In the face of public pressure over Trump’s often incendiary tweets last year, Twitter instituted a narrow exemption to its laissez-faire approach, vowing to label and potentially take action against the most egregious violations of its rules by top officials.

But in this instance, Twitter has opted to leave Trump’s tweets alone, finding that they are allowed under its rules. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to The Hill it has determined that none of Trump’s most controversial tweets this week violated Twitter policies, and the company pointed to an October blog post stating Twitter allows “foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues.” 

But experts told The Hill that the stakes are likely much higher than “saber-rattling," and Trump’s tweets could rise to the level of threatening war crimes and flouting international law.

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On Saturday, Trump tweeted the U.S. has “targeted 52 Iranian sites,” including some of cultural importance, to “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if Iran decides to retaliate in any way, drawing pushback from legal experts who pointed out that targeting cultural sites is widely understood to be a war crime. Long-standing international treaties, including the 1949 Geneva Convention and 1954 Hague Convention, prohibit countries from destroying cultural centers, antiquities or historical monuments during war in an effort to protect civilians during violent conflicts.  

And Trump further implicated Twitter on Sunday when he tweeted that his social media posts should “serve as notification to the United States Congress” that the U.S. plans to retaliate if Iran strikes any U.S. target. U.S. law requires the White House to notify Congress of any military-style action within 48 hours — but no president has ever tried to deliver that notification via tweet before.

“He seems to be claiming that he can provide notice to U.S. Congress via tweet, which is clearly not true,” said Oona Hathaway, the founder and director of the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School and a former counsel with the Defense Department.

In the same tweet, the president warned the U.S. could retaliate in a “disproportionate manner” — another potential violation of international law, which requires countries to plan counterattacks that are proportional to the threat they face. 

“Proportionality is the standard for war crimes,” Michael Karanicolas, a fellow with the Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, said. 

For years, critics have complained that Trump’s account should be suspended or his posts should be taken down for violating Twitter’s community standards as he attacked four congresswomen of color, threatened North Korea and even shared potentially classified information. But the latest conflict, which has seen Trump announcing violent attacks against a hostile nation-state on his account, has left Twitter facing biting questions over whether it wants to be seen as the go-to platform for officials threatening war. 

Joshua Geltzer, a Georgetown University law professor and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said Twitter is now allowing Trump to threaten “explicitly and definitionally unlawful violence.”

“Doing nothing, so long as the words are being tweeted by a political figure, is increasingly unsatisfactory given the violence referenced in the tweets of people like Donald Trump,” Geltzer said.  

Last June, Twitter earned a wave of complimentary press coverage when it announced that it would begin placing warning labels called “public interest notices” on tweets from world leaders found to violate its policies, a middle-ground compromise between censoring politicians and allowing them to completely flout Twitter's community standards. 

In an email on Monday, the company confirmed that it has “not yet used the public interest notice,” months after the policy change. 

Industry watchers pointed out that is not much of a surprise, considering Twitter’s policies around when it would use a public interest notice are explicitly narrow and limited mainly to when top officials threaten specific individuals. Otherwise, they are given free rein on the platform.

“I think it’s convenient,” Ghosh, with the Shorenstein Center, said. “They’ve made all the preparations to be able to point to the fact they have a public interest notice policy, but never have to trigger it because the coverage of material under it is so narrow.” 

It’s a position that is both commercially beneficial, allowing public officials like Trump and his massive following to remain glued to the platform, but that also allows Twitter to stay out of “adjudicating” complex topics like international human rights law, Geltzer said.

While television and radio stations are subject to various regulations and scrutiny under U.S. laws, the social media platforms still operate with essentially no government oversight, allowing them to formulate their own policies around what goes on their platforms with billions of users. 

The situation will likely only continue to become more volatile as the world grapples with the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful officials in Iran.

“It just is a very unstable situation for these kinds of statements to be made over a medium that’s so poorly regulated,” said Hathaway.