Twitter recently decided that rule-breaking tweets from influential politicians would be hidden behind a warning. Journalists were quick to label the new policy the “Trump rule”. But it wasn’t long before the rule was put to the test and found lacking.
Recent tweets by Donald Trump, which have widely been condemned as racist, were not hidden, and Twitter declared they didn’t violate the company’s policies.
The internet is often hailed as a democratic space, offering opportunities to everyone to contribute to public debate. Twitter’s new rule now introduces a two tier system, with the political influencers treated differently from regular users. Does this make sense or should the same standards apply to everyone on social media?
To shed light on this issue we can turn to ideas of one of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th century: John Rawls. While Rawls is best known for his Theory of Justice (1971), he also wrote extensively on the rules that should govern political debate and the public justification of political decisions.
Of course, our political world has changed very significantly since Rawls’ time. A significant portion of political debate has now moved online, to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This move has had profound effects on the way in which political issues are debated and on how democratic institutions operate. The question of what a healthy public debate would look like in a democratic society remains the same, however.
Twitter justifies its new policy as an attempt to protect “the health of the public conversation”. On its blog, the company explains that it sees the contributions from politically influential figures as especially important in this regard. “By nature of their positions these leaders have outsized influence and sometimes say things that could be considered controversial or invite debate and discussion. A critical function of our service is providing a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable.”
Rawls’ views about a healthy sphere of public debate lends support to policies that single out the contributions from influential political figures. In his book Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls proposed a concentric circles model of the public sphere, with those closer to the political decision-making process positioned closer to the centre. He used this model to argue that the sphere of public debate is not a level playing field. The closer a contribution to public debate is to decision making, the more important it is that it complies with responsible standards.
Rawls’ focus was on the place of religious views in the political sphere. He thought that upholding freedom of religion and the freedom to voice even very controversial ideas was of particular importance in settings that are not closely linked to political decision making, for example in the context of a family or a church gathering.
The new rules try to balance freedom of speech with tackling bad behaviour. pathdoc/Shutterstock
Contributions to political debate, by contrast, should aim to avoid being based on very controversial assumptions and should conform with core democratic commitments to the equality and liberty of all citizens. Government representatives and candidates for political office should exercise special care in upholding these standards, for example when defending a particular political decisions or policy proposals.
The focus of the new Twitter policy is different. It is concerned with balancing respect for the demands of freedom of speech with respect for its rules against abusive behaviour. Because it allows tweets that violate its rules to remain accessible, the policy as it stands is even at risk of further watering down the standards that apply to the contributions of influential political figures. The recent controversy over Trump’s racist tweets shows just how much more needs to be done.
But insofar as the new policy aims to manage the special status of social media contributions by influential political figures, it is a step in the right direction. More ambitious attempts to protect the health of political debate will hopefully follow. And Rawls’ model remains helpful in this regard, as it allows us to grasp why it makes sense to subject different social media contributions to different standards.
Many contributions on social media, even if they are very widely shared, occur in contexts that are quite removed from political decision making. If you use social media to post a picture of your outfit of the day, for example, the standards of responsible political decision making are of limited use to guide what you should post.
Other contributions to social media are more directly political. Among them are general contributions to political debate, for example a discussion about Brexit in a large group of Facebook friends, or #metoo or #blacklivesmatter tweets. But also among them are those posted by representatives of government or candidates for political office, that is by people with especially close links to political decision making.
Because a healthy sphere of public debate is a key feature of a well-functioning democracy, both types of political contributions should aim to uphold, not undermine, the standards of responsible political decision making. But for contributions from influential political figures, this is especially important. Because their posts carry so much weight in both public and political debate, they pose a much greater threat to both.
For this reason, special rules for Trump and his fellow world leaders make sense.
But we need social media policies that can really deliver this.