Twitter said Tuesday that not even President Donald Trump is immune from being kicked off the platform if his tweets cross a line with abusive behavior.
The social media company's rules against vitriolic tweets offer leeway for world leaders whose statements are newsworthy, but that "is not a blanket exception for the president or anyone else," Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde told POLITICO in an interview alongside CEO Jack Dorsey.
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Trump regularly uses Twitter to heap abuse on his perceived enemies and at times raise the specter of violence, such as when he tweeted last year that if North Korean leaders continued with their rhetoric at the time, "they won’t be around much longer!” Critics say the tweets violate Twitter’s terms of service and warrant punitive action.
Dorsey, who's due to testify before two congressional committees Wednesday about his company's content practices, said he receives notifications on his phone for Trump's Twitter account. But asked if he would weigh in personally to remove Trump from the platform, he declined to get into specifics.
"We have to balance it with the context that it’s in," he said. "So my role is to ask questions and make sure we’re being impartial, and we’re upholding consistently our terms of service, including public interest."
Trump's Twitter threats and taunts have repeatedly prompted calls for his removal from the platform, such as when he tweeted about Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in July, "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” In August, Trump, in tweets, called former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman “wacky,” “deranged” and a “dog.“
Amid controversy over Trump's tweeting back in January, Twitter posted to its corporate blog an unsigned explanation of its thinking around "world leaders" — without calling out Trump by name. It said blocking such leaders or removing their tweets "would hide important information people should be able to see and debate." Dorsey tweeted the policy, saying "we want to share our stance."
Dorsey is under intense pressure from both the left and right in Washington over how Twitter decides which tweets and advertisements are allowed to run on its platform. He's in Washington to testify twice on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, first before the Senate Intelligence Committee on foreign use of social media to interfere in U.S. elections and later in the House on allegations that Twitter is biased against conservatives.
The Twitter CEO also denied a Wall Street Journal report that he personally intervened to keep far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and white supremacist Richard Spencer on the site.
"I ask questions. I don’t think I’ve ever overruled anything," he said.
Dorsey agreed to testify before the House Energy and Commerce committee after tense negotiations, with committee staff at one point raising the possibility of a subpoena. The Twitter CEO said he was reluctant to appear solo without the other internet giants, Facebook and Google, which have also been accused of anti-conservative bias.
“We’re happy to have a conversation with our peers, because we don’t think this is an issue focused on just us alone. So we were attempting to get our peers up there as well and be joined by them, rather than be singled out,” Dorsey said. “We don’t think that’s fair.”
Dorsey said it's never Twitter’s intention to be biased against any one political affiliation or group. Asked why he thinks conservatives — including the president and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — keep raising the charges of "censorship," he would not speculate.
"I don’t know why they are repeating it, but for our part, we can do a better job of explaining our principles," he said. "And anytime we recognize mistakes, we’ve been fairly vocal about it, and then correcting. So that’s what we’re going to focus on."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have floated the idea of weakening or changing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key provision for the tech industry that gives websites legal immunity from what users post on them. Dorsey said the law has allowed the internet economy to flourish and argued that new tech startups would cease to exist without it. Earlier this year, Trump signed a bill meant to curb online sex trafficking by carving out an exception to Section 230, and the industry fears further erosion of its legal protections.
"If we didn’t have that protection, we would not be able to do anything around harassment or to improve the safety or health of the conversation around the platform," Dorsey said.
Dorsey also rejected the notion of regulating Twitter and other internet companies like a public utility, an idea that Steve Bannon reportedly championed while a strategist in the White House. Dorsey said that sort of top-down regulation doesn’t make sense "as long as we’re transparent around what’s guiding our decisions and enforcement, that we show willingness to evolve the rules as circumstances evolve."
Asked if Twitter has been in contact with special counsel Robert Mueller's office in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Gadde answered yes but declined to discuss any details.