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Outage-hit Twitter muddies violent speech policy

No more dog whistles or empty threats for caustic tweeps, but what does it matter if no one can post?

Twitter has announced a zero-tolerance violent speech policy, but its enforcement might be difficult given today's outage – and the growing list (both in quantity and frequency) of other interruptions.

In a thread yesterday, Twitter's Safety team said the new violent speech policy prohibits violent threats or wishes of harm, glorification of violence or incitement to violent acts. "Twitter has a zero-tolerance approach towards Violent Speech, and in most cases, we will suspend any account violating this policy," the Safety team said.

For less severe violations of the updated policy, Twitter said it may suspend accounts until offending tweets are deleted, but it didn't specify what it would consider less severe violent speech – or more severe, for that matter.

Twitter appears to have primarily merged a couple of earlier speech guidelines to create its 2023 violent speech policy as previous pages on abusive behavior (archived/new) and hateful conduct (archived/new) were updated to reflect the refreshed violent conduct policy, while a URL that previously resolved to Twitter's violent threats policy now returns a 404.

Compared to its old mix of various anti-hate and violence policies, the latest one bears some improvements, like making wishes of harm a bannable offense, whereas in the past Twitter said wishing or hoping that someone experiences harm or making threats "unlikely to cause serious or lasting injury" weren't actionable. Now it appears such speech would be actionable regardless of the likelihood the threats come to fruition.

Also included in the new policy but not present in the old ones is the mention of "dog whistles," or coded speech used by hate groups that Twitter said are often used to indirectly incite violence. Twitter said any use of such speech also violates its policy.

Additionally, glorifying violence is prohibited, though as with all the other forms of violent speech limited by the re-written policy, there are exemptions.

"We allow expressions of violent speech when there is no clear abusive or violent context, such as (but not limited to) hyperbolic and consensual speech between friends, or during discussion of video games and sporting events," Twitter said. The company also said figures of speech, satire and "artistic expression when the context is expressing a viewpoint rather than instigating actionable violence or harm" would continue to be permitted.

That sort of provision, especially one that provides an excuse for artistic expression or "expressing a viewpoint," could mean a good deal of hate speech – dog whistles included – are exempt from enforcement.

No examples were given by the company, and The Register was unable to reach anyone at Twitter due to it no longer having a communications team. The company has also reportedly made cuts to its content moderation team, so it's unclear whether the new policy will be enforced in any meaningful way.

Anyone able to post anything, for that matter?

While it's commendable that Twitter's ever-shrinking team is taking time out of their days to update hate speech policies, it doesn't really matter what the rules are if no one can use the platform. That was the case earlier today when thousands of Twitter users reported a wide-scale outage – again – with users saying their recommended and following timelines were blank. The issue has since been resolved.

The Register has written about what might happen to Twitter's tech infrastructure now that so many techies have left the organization, and have noted more outages of late, including a dramatic one at the start of February.

After mass layoffs late last year, more of Twitter's remaining institutional memory fled last month, and loyalists don't appear to be safe either, with 200 additional jobs being chopped over the weekend, including that of Twitter project manager Esther Crawford, who famously tweeted about sleeping on the floor at HQ as part of Musk's new "hardcore" Twitter 2.0. 

At this point, Twitter is believed to have fewer than 2,000 employees; prior to Musk's purchase it employed around 7,500. Twitter experienced four widespread outages in February alone, while it dealt with nine such disruptions in the whole of 2022, The New York Times reported yesterday.  

While today's outage was resolved, we have to wonder at what point Twitter will simply lack the skillset to fix an issue quickly. Don't ask Twitter, though – as has been the case through this entire fiasco its own status site indicates nothing is wrong, and still states there hasn't been a service interruption in the past 180 days. ®

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