It's incredible that it has come to this, but the world may now be in Jack Dorsey's hands.
That is not hyperbole. President Donald Trump is using Twitter to lob threats of nuclear war at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those within Trump's own orbit reportedly worry about the start of an accidental war.
Twitter's role here is undeniable. The president now rarely speaks publicly. Twitter is his only outlet. And when Trump tweets, the world responds.
Twitter and Dorsey are the only ones who can do much about this, but they've declined to do so, saying that Trump has not violated the terms of service of the company.
Well, screw your terms of service, Mr. Dorsey. And that goes for YouTube, Facebook, and every other tech company that has written their own "rules" for what can and can't happen on their platforms.
"TOS," as these rules are now commonly known, have always been the go-to excuse for platforms struggling to police all the terrible stuff that ends up on their network. Whatever happens, companies can just point to their TOS as if it were some sacred text handed down from on high.
Not that the terms can't be revised to address any situation. In the past few years, companies have started to crack down on acts that were previously allowed. Twitter finally addressed some of the constant abuse hurled at women and minorities on its platform. Reddit, once a fount of particularly vile racism and misogyny, shut down some of its worst subreddits. Facebook is starting to address fake news.
These acts were almost always preceded by changes to the TOS that justified the companies' actions. Companies rewrite the rules in order to punish the people who fall on the wrong side of the new way of things. They are the definition of arbitrary.
And then there's Logan Paul
Platforms also use TOS rules as a way to absolve themselves of responsibility, excusing them from having hosted particularly terrible stuff. YouTube is still under fire after one of its biggest stars, Logan Paul, posted a video that included graphic footage of a person who had committed suicide.
The video remained up for around 24 hours and received millions of likes before being taken down — apparently by Paul. YouTube's response was to basically say that Paul broke the rules, so it's not their fault.
This has become something of a pattern in the past year, with YouTube first being notified by the media of particularly disturbing content — usually targeted at young people — and then taking it down with the justification that it violated its TOS. YouTube hosted dark cartoons on its kids app and thousands of videos depicting what most reasonable people would call child abuse.
Step back here for a moment. YouTube had thousands of videos of child abuse on its platform and has faced little, if any, blowback. Why? The company has argued that such videos violate its TOS, so the people who made and uploaded those videos bear responsibility. YouTube's aim is to have the rules, not necessarily enforce them.
All the loopholes
Making matters worse, the TOS rules are gameable. Twitter's are particularly so, noted John Herrman in a recent column for the New York Times Magazine.
"A service like Twitter all but demands bad faith: It’s a place where fresh identities can be created and performed, often anonymously, and the stakes are only as high as the value you ascribe to not being banned," he wrote.
Twitter has been tying itself in knots to justify its actions, many of which come off as illogical or contradictory to its past efforts and explanations. To wit: In the wake of the Trump's tweet, many observed that "violent" speech isn't policed on consistent terms.
It's not okay for someone to threaten violence against another, but its fine for our President to threaten nuclear action toward North Korea: #Twitter's we're-just-the-platform approach is getting old.
— Jessi Hempel (@jessiwrites) January 3, 2018
Jessi Hempel's question, asked by many people in the last 24 hours, gets to the absurdity of Twitter's use of TOS. Twitter changed the rules so that it can better justify banning people who abuse other users. How then could it be OK with what could arguably be the single greatest piece of abuse in human history: The president threatening to nuke someone.
If terms of service don't already seem entirely arbitrary, just look at Twitter's new rules, which have been almost entirely written in the past year. They appear to have been built with Trump in mind. Government accounts aren't subject to the rules, and there's a hefty berth given to "newsworthiness."
Aside from a rule explicitly saying that the president is not allowed to threaten nuclear war, there's just not a good way to address the insanity of what we're witnessing. Donald Trump can do this, but is there any legitimate argument that he should be able to do this?
Maybe there is, but it's not going to be found in a TOS. It's a judgement call that should be made by the people who are running the company. It should be made by Jack Dorsey.
But Trump and Paul are outliers. They command huge audiences and have a penchant for getting attention from fans and haters alike. People like them are inevitably going to be difficult for companies to handle regardless of whatever terms are in place.
Heck, TOS work just fine for most users in creating some sort of reasonably agreed upon playing field. This is not to say that TOS should be entirely eliminated – they give us a general idea of what's considered fair play.
The major folly here is acting as if every single user on a platform is the same. They're not, and people like Trump and Paul are clearly in a different class from the rest of us. They demand special consideration in response to their actions. Anybody can threaten nuclear war. It's only a legitimate threat when it comes from the president.
Should YouTube ban Paul? Who's to say? TOS are not enforced in a court of law. They're applied by companies that are legally obligated to shareholders to make money. Not only is it not in the interest of YouTube to push Paul off its platform, it's not even in their interest to try to put in place a legitimate system of checks to ensure he can't put horrendous content in front of millions of children.
And when that does happen, there's the TOS to absolve the company of any wrongdoing. He broke the rules. Turns out, there's not a TOS rule against allowing this to happen in the first place.
The Trump clause
At this point, Trump might just be untouchable based on the TOS, which is maybe the most refreshing version of Twitter's rules yet. Let's just call it what it is. Twitter can do whatever they want with their platform. There's your TOS. It wants Trump. You might not agree, but that's fine.
In reality, the TOS are whatever Twitter decides to do at that moment. If Trump calls for an individual journalist to be killed, maybe Twitter/Dorsey says that's over the line. It's really not that hard to imagine this scenario at this point or Twitter taking that step.
And if they want to ban him after something like that, they can ban him. Just don't pretend like it's a TOS thing. Screw your TOS, Jack. It's your choice to make.