Twitter’s rulebook in a nutshell: don’t annoy Elon Musk

Facebook’s community standards is a sprawling document, broken down into six top-level categories and 24 subcategories, distinguishing between content that is allowed and that which requires extra context, replete with examples of breaches and justifications for its choices. It is treated with quasi-legalistic power by the company’s oversight board, which incorporates its own precedent, as well as international human rights standards, to occasionally overrule Facebook’s own moderation choices.

Twitter’s rulebook is simpler: don’t annoy Elon Musk.

There is a set of written rules, a document that purports to be the social network’s equivalent of Facebook’s community standards. But the events of the last week have shown that the written rules are a polite fiction maintained by the site: a fig leaf over the true moderation policy of the social network, which is to follow the capricious whims of its increasingly erratic multibillionaire owner.

Until this week, Musk’s – and thus Twitter’s – moderation policy was simple. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law,” he had tweeted after he offered to buy the social network. In November, just a few days after he was finally forced to honour that offer, he reiterated that “my commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk”.

On Thursday, that commitment broke. Musk took action against the account he had held up as emblematic of his free speech credentials, blocking first the ElonJet account, then, shortly after, its creator, a college student from Florida. Neither had broken any rules of the site when they were blocked, but a few minutes later they had, as Twitter rewrote its guidelines to include a ban on sharing “an individual’s live location” on Twitter, as well as sharing “private media, such as images or videos of private individuals, without their consent”.

The policy, on the face of it, bars a staggering amount of content. Live-tweeting sporting, artistic and political events would seem to be banned at one end of the spectrum, while simply posting a picture of yourself and friends out on the town would be deleted at the other end.

But the policy is not written to be applied. Moments after it went live, Elon Musk immediately broke it, posting videos of an individual he called a “crazy stalker” who climbed on to the bonnet of his car. (The videos simply showed someone sitting in their car.)

Obviously, Musk’s video has not been removed. But the moderation spree continued, with several journalists who had been critical of Musk losing access to their accounts overnight. Some had linked to versions of the ElonJet account on other platforms; some had interviewed the founder of the account; others had not done anything immediately obvious save argue with Musk.

As the pushback grew, so did the bans. The Twitter account for Mastodon, a rival social network, was banned when it shared a link to the ElonJet Mastodon account. Then Twitter started banning all links to Mastodon, even ones that had nothing to do with ElonJet at all.

Twitter is no stranger to hurriedly updating its rules based on events in the real world. We know that, ironically, through the release of what Musk dubbed the “Twitter Files”, a set of Twitter threads written in collaboration with friendly journalists that purported to reveal the “crime scene” that the company had become during the 2020 US election.

The files show Twitter staff panicking about the radicalisation of the US right in the run-up to, and fallout of, the election, and trying to react to events such as the publication of emails lifted from Hunter Biden’s laptop and the insurrection at the US Capitol building. Some decisions they made, such as the choice to block all links to the New York Post over the laptop, did not stand the test of time. Others, such as working with the FBI regarding counterattacks on election integrity, did.

It seems unlikely that an edition of the Twitter Files will cast light on the chaotic conversations happening inside the company over the past 48 hours. But if they did, they would probably show far fewer discussions of high-minded principle and far more attempts to reverse engineer a rationale for doing what the chief executive had already decided must be done.


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