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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

Go deeper

11 mins ago - World

U.S. will give Russians written response to NATO demands, Blinken says

Blinken and Lavrov shake hands in Geneva. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed after a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Friday that the U.S. will provide written answers to Russia's security demands next week.

Why it matters: Russia claims to be waiting for "concrete answers" to its demands that NATO rule out further expansion and roll back its presence in eastern Europe before deciding its next steps on Ukraine. But the U.S. and NATO have called those proposals "non-starters," and Friday's meeting offered no breakthroughs, so it's unclear how written answers might change the equation.

More surprises await scientists at Antarctica's "Doomsday Glacier"

Cliffs along the edge of the Thwaites Ice Shelf in West Antarctica. Photo: James Yungel/NASA

Researchers like David Holland, an atmospheric scientist at New York University, are in a race to understand the fate of a massive glacier in West Antarctica that has earned a disquieting nickname: "The Doomsday Glacier."

Why it matters: Studies show the Thwaites Glacier (its official name) could already be on an irreversible course to melt during the next several decades to centuries, freeing up enough inland ice to raise global sea levels by at least several feet.

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Omicron's blitz around the world has underscored the need for a new arsenal of COVID vaccines and therapeutics, experts say — and that may require an effort akin to Operation Warp Speed 2.0.

Why it matters: The virus will continue to evolve, potentially in a way that further escapes vaccine protection, and the best way to prevent more global disruptions to everyday life is to have tools ready to combat whatever comes next.