Is Twitter banning journalism?

Under the previous policy, users were prohibited from sharing certain types of personal information. Now included is "media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted."

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY

One day after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down from his post, announcing the ascension of Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal to that position, Twitter has announced new policies with regards to what constitutes a violation on the platform.

This new policy shift bans the sharing of images that were not expressly approved for sharing by those depicted in the images. Twitter already has policies against users revealing personal information, such as addresses, phone numbers, and any hacked material.

"This update," Twitter states, "will allow us to take action on media that is shared without any explicit abusive content, provided it’s posted without the consent of the person depicted. This is a part of our ongoing work to align our safety policies with human rights standards, and it will be enforced globally starting today."

Under the previous "private information policy," users were prohibited from sharing certain types of personal information "without the permission of the person who it belongs to." These included: addresses or location information that was "considered private," identification documentation, contact information, financial information, biometric or medical data.

The addition to this list of disallowed content is "media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted."

The news was not welcomed by many on Twitter, who worry that this new policy would spell an end to independent journalism, which relies on the ability to share images sources from events and happenings as they unfold.

Accuracy in Media stated that this move is actually an attempt to shut down independent journalism. The Twitter platform is one that independent journalists have relied on to break stories even prior to publication, and to share information about events in real time.

As to how violations will be dealt with, they say that "When private information or media has been shared on Twitter, we need a first-person report or a report from an authorized representative in order to make the determination that the image or video has been shared without their permission."

At that point, they say, they will remove the images. The policy does not cover "media featuring public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse."

Twitter states that there could be exceptions, such as "instances where account holders may share images or videos of private individuals in an effort to help someone involved in a crisis situation, such as in the aftermath of a violent event, or as part of a newsworthy event due to public interest value, and this might outweigh the safety risks to a person."

Additional exceptions include media that was already published by media outlets. They write that "we would take into consideration whether the image is publicly available and/or is being covered by mainstream/traditional media (newspapers, TV channels, online news sites), or if a particular image and the accompanying tweet text adds value to the public discourse, is being shared in public interest, or is relevant to the community."

It is unclear what Twitter means by "mainstream/traditional media," and what that designation would mean for the emergence of new media sites, which do not have a legacy classification.

Noam Blum gave his interpretation, saying that the policy "specifically refers to media that doesn't exist anywhere else online and is meant to violate someone's privacy."

Videos recorded by journalists and shared to Twitter that show crimes are not meant to violate privacy, but could be viewed that way by the person who is committing the hypothetical crime. Would a video showing people robbing a store, for example, be a violation of their privacy or in the public interest? What about mug shots of criminal suspects? What about video of protestors staging events of civil unrest?

Twitter attempted to clarify what this change means in an update to their initial post, three hours later. They claim that "Images/videos that show people participating in public events... would generally not violate that policy." However, once a person in one of those images from an event of that nature complains and reports the image, Twitter will consider the removal of those images.

But the use of Twitter as a site on which journalists can break original stories prior to publication elsewhere could be in danger. Twitter writes that "Context matters. Our existing private information policy includes many exceptions in order to enable robust reporting on newsworthy events and conversations that are in the public interest."

"We will take into consideration whether the image is publicly available and/or is being covered by journalists—or if a particular image and the accompanying Tweet text adds value to the public discourse—is being shared in public interest or is relevant to the community," Twitter stated.

New CEO Agrawal has said that he does not believe that Twitter is bound by the first amendment, which gives protections to the press and requires the vouchsafing of free speech and free press rights.

"Our role," Agrawal, "is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation."

"The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed," Agrawal said.

"One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. The scarce commodity today is attention. There's a lot of content out there. A lot of tweets out there, not all of it gets attention, some subset of it gets attention.

"And so increasingly our role is moving towards how we recommend content and that sort of, is, is, a struggle that we're working through in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we're building, how we direct people's attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory."

The policy itself is remarkably vague, and it would behoove Twitter to issue a clarifying statement so that journalists know what is permitted on the platform.


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