December 1, 2021 - 10:17am

Barely a day after Twitter’s Jack Dorsey announced he was stepping down as CEO, handing the reins to former chief technology officer Parag Agrawal, the social media company made the first major policy change of the post-Dorsey era. In a blog posted yesterday morning, Twitter announced that it was updating its “private information policy” — which bans users from posting other users’ home addresses, ID documents, and financial account records, among other things — to prohibit the sharing of “media of private individuals,” meaning photos and video, “without the permission of the person(s) depicted.”

On its face, this might seem like a healthy development. We’ve all seen how photos and videos can derail the lives of random citizens — take the “Central Park Karen” of last summer, who lost her job and dog, and was prosecuted by the Manhattan DA, after a video of her calling the police on a black birdwatcher went viral. (The real story was, unsurprisingly, more complicated than it first appeared.) And while the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras has allowed for important citizen journalism, it has also made everyday life into a virtual panopticon in which one is in danger of having their life ruined over a fleeting moment of anger

But there is good reason to be sceptical of how Twitter will apply its new rule. In the blog post announcing the change, the company explained:

 This policy is not applicable to 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 Safety

But of course, what is in “the public interest” or “add[s] value to public discourse” is itself a political question. Over the weekend, conservative Twitter users zeroed in on the strange history of Holly Zoller, the Left-wing activist attempting to raise bail money for the accused Waukesha killer Darrell Brooks. Whether such information is citizen journalism or harassment is in the eye of the beholder. 

Twitter has a history of selectively enforcing its terms of service. In the run-up to the 2020 election, it censored the New York Posts’s reporting on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, citing a hitherto-obscure prohibition on the sharing of “hacked materials.” It used its policy against the “glorification of violence” to crack down on vocal support for Kyle Rittenhouse and to ban Donald Trump from Twitter after the Capitol Riot, while leaving Left-wing celebrations of rioting or black bloc tactics unmolested. And it did nothing when progressive darling Nikole Hannah-Jones violated its private information policy by tweeting out the phone number of a conservative reporter who asked her for comment. 

“The misuse of private media can affect everyone, but can have a disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities,” Twitter explained in announcing the policy change. This could be dismissed as standard progressive boilerplate. But we have already seen such “disparate-impact” logic, combined with pressure from woke employees on the inside and activist NGOs on the outside, force Facebook to abandon its race-blind hate speech policy in favour of one that cracks down forcefully on offensive speech targeting women and minorities while allowing vitriol against white people, Americans, and men. 

In a country polarised by race, gender, and ideology, this amounts to a ban on hate speech targeting one party but not the other. Will Twitter follow Facebook’s example? I hope not, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet