On Monday morning North Korea's foreign minister told journalists gathered near the United Nations that president Trump's recent tweet about North Korea was a declaration of war against his country. Trump's "they won't be around much longer!" tweet and North Korea's interpretation of it are the latest in a series of escalations between the two powers that have set the international community on high alert. Since Trump made the remark on Twitter, today's comments from North Korea also raise the question: Does a threat that leads to a declaration of war violate the company's opaque rules for conduct and its prohibitions against harassment and incitement?
Twitter appears unwilling to weigh in. Asked for comment on Trump's Sept. 23 tweet — specifically if it violates the company's terms of service — a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News it "does not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons."
Twitter's silence comes as little surprise — the company's decision not to comment on individual accounts for privacy reasons (even when the account is held by the president of the United States to conduct government business) is a long-held policy designed to shield the company from accountability. And while Trump has continually tested the limits of Twitter's rules throughout his candidacy and presidency, the latest escalation, and this particular tweet, is clearly uncharted territory for the social network.
Following a strict interpretation of Twitter's rules, Trump's recent tweet — a clear threat toward North Korea's foreign minister — is likely a violation of Twitter's rules, which state that "you may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others" and defines abusive incitement as:
If a primary purpose of the reported account is to harass or send abusive messages to others;
If the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats;
If the reported account is inciting others to harass another account; and
If the reported account is sending harassing messages to an account from multiple accounts.
Historically, Twitter's interpretation and enforcement of its rules have been inconsistent. And though Twitter told Slate late last year that its policies apply to all its users, the company has been reluctant to weigh in on Trump's conduct on its platform. In December 2016 the company declined to comment when Trump used his Twitter account to lambaste Chuck Jones, an Indiana union organizer who criticized him; the Washington Post reported that Jones was inundated with threatening phone calls as a result. And the company took no action this summer when Trump tweeted a meme that showed him as a wrestler body slamming the CNN logo — an instance that some interpreted as a threat against journalists.
For tweets like these, the New York Times has dubbed Trump the “Cyberbully in Chief" and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has described his feelings about Trump's use of Twitter as "complicated." But Monday's statements threaten to raise the stakes for the social network and present a series of difficult policy questions as to how it enforces its rules with the commander in chief. Among them: Does the president of the United States merit a Twitter rules exemption? Is a tweet interpreted as a declaration of war a violation of the company's terms of service?
This is — again — uncharted territory for the social network. But the long-standing lack of clarity around Twitter's terms of service and its enforcement of them is only going to draw more scrutiny given the conduct of its most powerful user.
Several hours after publication, Twitter's policy team responded via a tweetstorm noting that the company will soon be updating its public-facing rules. In keeping up controversial tweets, Twitter said that "among the considerations is 'newsworthiness' and whether a Tweet is of public interest...We need to do better on this, and will," the company said.