Another day, another test of the limits of Twitter's harassment rules.
This time, Twitter's challenge came from Gizmodo Media Group and its news and politics site Splinter, which, on Wednesday afternoon, tweeted out what it reported is White House adviser Stephen Miller's phone number alongside a piece titled, "Here's Stephen Miller's Cell Phone Number, If You Need It." Miller is the reported architect of the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy, which has resulted in the forceful separation of children from their families at the border.
Countless others followed Splinter's lead, starting with Gizmodo Media Group reporters and editors followed by other users who posted screenshots of their texts to Miller. As of this writing, a Twitter search of Miller's number yielded hundreds of tweets containing the number, as well as users who've changed their Twitter display name to his number.
Twitter rules forbid users to publish any private information for public and private figures alike, which includes phone numbers. Typically, this is something you might see from individuals or groups of users as a form of targeted harassment. It's less common, however, for such information to be published by a major media outlet.
A spokesperson for Twitter told BuzzFeed News that publishing Miller's number was a violation of the company's rules. "We are aware of this and are taking appropriate action on content that violates our Terms of Service," the spokesperson said.
Within minutes of posting the Tweet, Twitter temporarily suspended or locked Splinter's account, as well as the accounts of various journalists who tweeted the number. Twitter notes that it is not blanket suspending accounts for this but instituting its deletion requirement policy. This means that in order for users to regain the ability to tweet publicly, they'll need to delete the violating tweet or go through Twitter's formal appeal process. Until they're deleted, violating tweets might be hidden from public view, Twitter's rules state.
Whether intentional or not, Splinter's decision to publish Miller's number illustrates the tenuous position Twitter is in after years of arbitrary rule enforcement. Twitter has been dogged for years by its inability to effectively curb harassment on its platform and for allowing bad actors to game its report system to use its policing tools against upstanding users. A major media outlet posting private information thereby forces Twitter to enforce its rules in a public and potentially unpopular way. (The Splinter piece notes that Trump himself has publicly shared the personal phone numbers of both Sen. Lindsey Graham and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. In the case of Ramos, whose number was shared via Trump's Instagram, the post was taken down.)
The decision to lock out users who tweet Miller's number raises a number of new questions for Twitter, among them: Now that the number is out in the public, how far will the company go in removing the hundreds of tweets and locking accounts of the very many users who have tweeted it? Similarly, when does Miller's number — now out in the open — become public information, if ever? David Klion, a freelance journalist whose account was locked Wednesday after tweeting Miller's number, told BuzzFeed News he found his punishment odd, considering that Splinter had effectively made Miller's information public before he tweeted it.
Perhaps most interesting from a Twitter policy standpoint is that Twitter appears to be locking accounts of users who've tweeted links to Splinter's story, which discloses Miller's number.
Previously, Twitter has removed tweets that contain links to public information, but those links are often to randomly circulated documents or spreadsheets, not links to news stories by major publications. To remove links to a news outlet's story is unprecedented territory for Twitter and one that is likely to dredge up a host of questions about Twitter's role in promoting and censoring information.
When reached, Splinter had no further comment, noting that the story spoke for itself.
According to a Twitter spokesperson, the company has stopped locking accounts tweeting Miller's number, as it is "no longer a valid number."
"It's against our policies to share other people's private information on Twitter, including directly linking to that information," the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "Today, we temporarily blocked accounts that shared this information until they deleted the Tweet that violated our rules. At this time, the number that was previously being shared is no longer a valid number and, as such, we are no longer enforcing our policy against individuals Tweeting or linking to that information."
Charlie Warzel is a Senior Technology Writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Missoula, Montana
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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