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Twitter Left Up Ilhan Omar Death Threats So Law Enforcement Could Investigate

Questions have emerged on Capitol Hill about how Twitter handles death threats on its platform.

Posted on April 15, 2019, at 7:17 p.m. ET

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Twitter left up tweets threatening Rep. Ilhan Omar’s life over the weekend so law enforcement could investigate them, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Omar on Sunday said that threats on her life have increased after President Trump tweeted a video on April 12 that juxtaposed images of the World Trade Center being hit and bursting into flames with a clip of Omar saying, “Some people did something” in reference to the 9/11 attacks.

Twitter would’ve typically taken down the threatening tweets once they were reported, but the company left them up to enable potential law enforcement collaboration, a source close to the company told BuzzFeed News. The Capitol Hill police are working on the issue, the source said.

The incident highlights Twitter’s flawed approach to dealing with death threats on its platform. Instead of reporting death threats to law enforcement as a policy, Twitter simply deletes them. This means its users can make these threats with little fear of retribution, since the tweets usually disappear before police can review them. “This creates incentives for users of the platform,” a Democratic congressional aide told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a reason people on this platform feel comfortable making open death threats to Ilhan Omar.”

Omar’s office declined to comment.

“Death threats, incitement to violence, and hateful conduct are absolutely unacceptable on Twitter,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “Accounts spreading this type of material will be removed and coupled with our proactive engagement, we continue to encourage people to report this content to us. This behavior undermines freedom of expression and the values our service is based on.”

Omar’s “Some people did something” comment, which was just a snippet of a longer speech she gave in March at a banquet for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, provoked a widespread right-wing backlash. Some commentators framed her choice of words as a minimization of the 9/11 attacks. In context, Omar’s comments can be read as a call against punishing all Muslims for the actions of the 9/11 hijackers and their enablers.

Asked if it’s aware of the threats on Omar’s life, the United States Capitol Police declined to specify. “The mission of the United States Capitol Police is to protect and serve Congress,” a Capitol Police spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “Our responsibilities include consulting with Members and their offices on security-related matters. However, we do not discuss how we carry out our protective responsibilities for Congress.”

Twitter has long struggled to set clear boundaries on the type of content that should be allowed on its service, and it’s currently in the midst of an initiative to improve the health of the conversations taking place on its platform.

The company’s rules are especially confusing when applied to world leaders’ comments, since it makes an exception when tweets are newsworthy. This was Twitter’s justification when it chose to leave up threats of war. More recently, Twitter removed a tweet from Iran’s Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei that appeared to call for the execution of the novelist Salman Rushdie. This week’s death threats against Omar have presented Twitter with yet another tricky situation. Amid the murkiness, what’s clear is that 13 years after Twitter’s founding in 2006, the company still doesn’t seem capable of reworking its fundamentals to the point where threatening a sitting congresswoman’s life isn’t something Twitter users commonly do.

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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.