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Platforms fall deeper into the political-speech quagmire

Illustration of President Trump with a Twitter bird flying out of his mouth
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

As the House's impeachment inquiry kicks off, stoking partisan tempers online, Facebook and Twitter are scrambling to deal with the fallout.

Why it matters: Social media platforms that set out to "bring the world closer together" and help people "share ideas and information" are finding that there is no bottom to the hole they're in now that their services have become political battlegrounds.

Driving the news: President Trump's tweets have often been intemperate, but since the announcement of the impeachment inquiry they have grown even more combative and menacing.

  • Trump quoted a conservative minister's argument that removing him from office would set off a new American civil war. He also twice suggested that Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic congressman who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, might be tried for treason.
  • A Harvard law professor told Newsweek the "civil war" tweet was grounds for impeachment, and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger called it "repugnant" (on Twitter).
  • In September, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar said Trump's retweet of a false video claiming to show her celebrating the anniversary of the 9/11 attack had put her life at risk.

In all these cases, the president used his position and his Twitter soapbox to threaten political opponents, his critics argued. They cranked up their longstanding call for Twitter to suspend his @realDonaldTrump account.

Twitter's rules bar targeted harassment and threats of violence against individuals or groups.

  • But Twitter has long held that it will move with extra caution when it comes to public figures — people who "may be considered a topic of legitimate public interest by virtue of their being in the public consciousness."
  • In June, Twitter announced that, in cases where its moderators had determined that a particular tweet violated its rules but was being allowed to remain online anyway for this reason, it would notify the public with a "gray box" notice on the message.

Be smart: Platforms like Twitter are even less likely to take action against potentially offending public figures on the right — Trump included — since the companies have been the target of unsubstantiated complaints that they censor conservatives.

Our thought bubble: For Twitter, Trump represents a kind of catastrophic "edge case" — the term engineers use for scenarios that expose the contradictions or weaknesses in their systems.

  • His office makes him undeniably a "topic of legitimate public interest." But his tweets keep moving further across Twitter's red lines.

Meanwhile, Facebook is also struggling to assemble a coherent political-speech strategy.

  • Since 2016 Facebook has had a "newsworthiness" exemption for content that violates its rules to remain online if Facebook decides that's in the public interest.
  • Last week Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of global affairs, announced that "From now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard." Political ads will be more strictly vetted.
  • Facebook also plans to exempt material declared to be "opinion" or "satire" from its fact-checking rules, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Between the lines: Facebook just fired a starters' pistol on a game of Whac-a-mole, in which trolls and pranksters will run for office, or claim to be doing so, and creators of fraudulent content will slap on an "opinion" or "satire" label to protect it.

What they're thinking inside Facebook: Wish that independent oversight board (aka "Facebook's Supreme Court") was already up and running!

The bottom line: The platforms' dilemma is rooted in users' conflicting desires. Much of the public doesn't want these companies to decide what political actors can and can't say — but also doesn't want the public sphere to become a free-fire zone for hate mobs, threats, and lies.

Go deeper: Social media's new job: Content cops