Politics

Twitter warned users against wishing for someone’s death after Trump contracted COVID-19. The ‘squad’ would like a word.

Twitter agreed it "must do better," after Ayanna Pressley and others spoke out.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listen during a congressional hearing in February. Alex Brandon / AP

Following the news that President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19 this week, Twitter issued a reminder to some of the Republican president’s more overzealous critics.

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The social media platform said it has no tolerance for people who wish serious harm or even death upon another person — and it doesn’t matter if they have mishandled the response to a pandemic that has caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

“Tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against *anyone* are not allowed and will need to be removed,” Twitter’s official public relations account wrote Friday night, as Trump was being flown to Walter Reed hospital outside of Washington, D.C., for medical treatment.

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And while the company said that such tweets would not automatically result in users getting their account suspended, the statement and its timing irked several female elected officials who are regularly subjected to threatening tweets, as well as their congressional aides.

“Is this policy uh retroactive?” Sarah Groh, the chief of staff for Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, asked, noting that her boss is one of “a few women of color in Congress that deal of piles of death threats weekly.”

Pressley herself shot back at Twitter, simply: “Please DM me.”

“So… you mean to tell us you could‘ve done this the whole time?” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez added.

Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley make up half of the “squad,” the nickname that gained traction for four of the progressive Democratic congresswomen of color who were elected in 2018 and have become popular targets for conservative media, as well as Trump. That focus has resulted in not an insignificant amount of hateful and even menacing rhetoric directed their way, including on social media, according to the group.

Jeremy Slevin, the communications director of Rep. Ilhan Omar, tweeted that Twitter “doesn’t do s[***]” about the “actual death threats” the Minnesota congresswoman and fellow “squad member has received. Slevin followed up with a screenshot Saturday of eight separate tweet advocating for Omar’s death.

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“Great to see that this policy is already being enforced consistently!” he wrote, sarcastically.

“Seriously though, this is messed up,” wrote Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, another “squad” member. “The death threats towards us should have been taking more seriously by [Twitter].”

Omar, who has perhaps faced the most significant death threats both in volume and seriousness, was left without words.

But it wasn’t just “squad” members who ripped Twitter’s statement over the weekend. The post received literally thousands of critical quote-tweets and replies, most frequently from women with progressive politics.

“Harassment and violence aren’t new to your platform,” Rep. Katherine Clark, a fellow Massachusetts Democrat, said in response.

“Women and especially women of color have long faced threats— and often it results in real world violence,” Clark said. “How about we react equally when anyone is endangered.”

In response, Twitter posted a series of tweets from a separate account late Saturday afternoon admitting that it “must do better.”

“We hear the voices who feel that we’re enforcing some policies inconsistently,” the company wrote, pledging to address the “concerns about our enforcement through action, not empty words.”

The company has several posts on its website that shed light on its approach to enforcing its rules against violent threats and other abusive behavior. According to one of its tweets Saturday afternoon, more than 50 percent of abusive tweets are caught by automated systems. Twitter also encourages users to report abusive behavior and posts notices explaining when tweets violate their rules.

“Twitter being abused to instill fear, to silence your voice, or to undermine individual safety, is unacceptable,” the company said Saturday. “We appreciate the open and direct feedback we’re getting, and we will respond to it through further action.”

In the wake of Trump’s hospitalization, the company did note to Vice that it “won’t take enforcement action on every Tweet.”

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“We’re prioritizing the removal of content when it has a clear call to action that could potentially cause real-world harm,” Twitter said.

Given the platform’s “zero tolerance policy” against violent threats, critics say Twitter may have a bit of a “backlog” on which to catch up. Asked about receiving death threats after Trump singled out the four “squad” members last year, Pressley said the attacks on the congresswomen were illustrative of larger societal attitudes.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t think that my experience as a marginalized person, as a Black woman, suddenly changed when you have a comma and an elected title after your name,” she said at the time.

Despite her criticism of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and handling of the pandemic, Pressley has said she hopes the president makes a full recovery.

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