BuzzFeed News has learned that Twitter's Trust and Safety Team doesn't have the ability to remove or block individual tweets; it can only take action on accounts. That’s why Twitter disabled key features of actor Rose McGowan’s account on Wednesday night after she posted a private phone number to the service.
That move disabled McGowan’s ability to tweet, retweet, or like anything on Twitter at a critical moment: She had been using the platform to detail the alleged sexual misconduct of film mogul Harvey Weinstein, and to call for repercussions for such behavior and those who enable it.
When McGowan published a tweet in violation of Twitter's rules, the company's Trust and Safety Team's only option was to silence her entire account until she deleted that tweet. McGowan did so and was initially told she’d have to wait 12 hours for full functionality to be restored, but someone from Twitter apparently intervened and restored it in full.
Sources familiar with Twitter’s trust and safety operations and policies say this heavy-handed protocol is intentional. “It's not just a technical bit; that's the way the Twitter policy is drawn up,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. But it’s clear that the policy isn't particularly well-suited to cases like McGowan's. After a number of Twitter users expressed shock that the actor had been restricted while some legitimate trolls and harassers often go undisciplined, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey conceded the company needs to better explain the rationale behind its enforcement actions. “We do need to do a better job at showing that we are not selectively applying rules,” Dorsey said.
For the platform's critics, the McGowan restriction is confirmation of a fundamental disconnect between Twitter's harassment prevention tools and the realities of policing the social network. Many of the company's terms-of-service rules and abuse prevention tools feel like relics of a different, smaller Twitter, drawn up long before the service became the beating heart of breaking news and a chaotic political battleground.
The frustration around the McGowan incident is magnified by countless of stories of Twitter dismissing reports of clear-cut harassment. Though Twitter has repeatedly pledged to do a better job policing its platform for abuse, BuzzFeed News has compiled dozens of instances of valid reports of harassment that the company dismissed as not in violation of its rules. Similarly, Twitter’s enforcement of those rules continues to be inconsistent. Earlier this month, when conspiracy theorist Alex Jones tweeted out a graphic, unconfirmed image of the alleged Vegas shooter’s body in a pool of blood, Twitter kept the photo up — adding a sensitive image tag — under its “newsworthiness” clause. The social network gave the same “newsworthiness” reason for not intervening when president Trump tweeted late last month at North Korea, a gesture the country called “an act of war.”
Twitter declined comment.
Some observers feel the company should rethink its trust and safety system. “What would Twitter have to lose in completely blowing up their whole approach to trust and safety?” a former Twitter employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not more transparency, it’s the fucking rules. The interpretation of the rules and clarity of the rules. I don't see what the company would have to lose at this point by completely redrafting the policy."
Perhaps, but sources close to the company told BuzzFeed News Twitter doesn’t want to be seen as making editorial decisions about the material published on its platform.
But silencing an entire account until a tweet is removed instead of removing that tweet itself could also be Twitter’s way of rationalizing that it’s not really removing that content. And in this case, the system it designed blew up in its face.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.