A quick note on Twitter
Update, 3 p.m. PDT: A Twitter employee with knowledge of the incident said the company’s platform erred in locking the profile for 12 hours once the content in question was removed. The employee provided a link to a note that said content “depicting the tragedy” in New Zealand was being scrubbed by the platform. The clip did not show the act itself, so it remains unclear which rule it violated.
Update, 2:45 p.m. PDT: The account was restored to full functionality prior to the lapse of the 12-hour timeout. Twitter has not directly commented on why the account was suspended in the first place, though it appears to have been inadvertent.
Update, 2:30 p.m. PDT: A member of Twitter’s communications team said the company is looking into the matter. People familiar with operations at Twitter suggest the company’s decision to temporarily lock my account may have been inadvertent. The original post follows below…
Earlier today, I received notice that Twitter locked my account due to an unspecified violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service. An email sent to me this morning directed me to log in to Twitter where the alleged violation would be shown and steps could be taken to remedy the problem.
After logging in to my account, a note from Twitter said a post made during Friday’s coverage of the New Zealand terrorist attack violated its Terms of Service. The post was a breaking news tweet that said New Zealand police were reviewing messages allegedly posted by the shooting suspect before the attack was carried out. The tweet also said the shooting suspect referenced “PewDiePie,” a popular YouTube personality, in a lengthy video that was circulating online that started several minutes before the attack and continued through the attack itself. The tweet contained a short, 12-second, clip of the suspect saying “Alright lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.”
The note did not say why this clip violated Twitter’s Terms of Service, but it did say I had two options to remedy the problem. One solution was to file a counter-notification protesting Twitter’s assertion that the content was in violation of the site’s Terms of Service. The other was to agree to remove the content, waive any right of appeal and have my account suspended for 12 hours.
I have covered situations where activists and others have had their Twitter accounts suspended for lengthy periods of time. Some have chosen to file counter-protests where a response from Twitter can take hours if not days. Others did what I did — simply remove the content, figuring it would be a better bet and afraid of what would happen if filing a protest did not result in our favor.
Neither one is a good option for a journalist covering a developing news story, specifically an unfolding emergency with critical public safety implications.
To its credit, typically exercises extreme restraint in removing newsworthy material published on its platform by journalists covering a news story — even when that content could be construed as uncomfortable or distressing. In some cases, Twitter also agrees that some things that would normally violate its Terms of Service ultimately do not when they are published by individuals who contribute to societal discourse and become themselves newsworthy materials.
At the same time, journalists who receive distressing material connected to an act of extreme violence are required to exercise a high level of due diligence, judgment and discretion in deciding whether or not to share any or all of the material. Many decided on Friday to err on the side of caution and not share any of the material; others decided to share portions of the material that could be examined and contextualized through reporting and analysis.
Journalism laws and ethics vary widely depending on where a person works and lives. In Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, certain laws prohibit journalists from disclosing key details of a crime; in some cases, this may extend to naming a suspect or publishing certain material related to an alleged offense unless and until that person is convicted. In the United States, the laws are much looser, and journalists routinely publish materials associated with a crime when and if they can receive them. In other parts of the world, news outlets routinely publish violent video, photographs and other materials related to emergency situations and attacks — material that may be withheld from public view on the basis that it is simply too sensitive to show.
In the 12 years I have been on Twitter, I have covered emergencies where I’ve wrestled with the same decision. Some of my considerations in deciding whether material should be published during a developing news story include whether or not I have the legal basis to do so (if the material is copyrighted, if publication of the material could constitute fair use — it generally does, whether publication of the material may violate any laws and whether any legal protections are afforded specifically in a news context), whether the material is easily and readily accessible by others, whether it offers a greater understanding or better contextualizes an event unfolding in real-time, and whether certain ethical considerations warrant withholding.
In the case of the alleged offending tweet, the video clip was arguably the most-benign portion of the lengthy footage the alleged gunman streamed in real time to Facebook. That portion of the video has been referenced by news outlets all over the world, including the New York Times, Forbes, the Miami Herald, CNN and others. It is arguably newsworthy. Yet Twitter decided to remove it, presumably because it is a small selection from a longer, more-violent video, while at the same time allowing other journalists and news outlets to publish and distribute longer clips from the video that show the moment the gunman opened fire on worshippers at a mosque.
The decision to post material from the video is not one I took lightly during my coverage of the situation in New Zealand — coverage that, at times, broke news on the events there based on sources who provided solid tips ahead of official confirmation from local authorities. In the case of the video clip I published, my publishing of the clip allowed news consumers to view it — and only it — without being forced to find it in a much-longer video that contains scenes of extreme, graphic violence.
In a time when conspiracies thrive in the absence of fact-based proof (and sometimes in spite of it), the video clip is news. Though it may upset the fans of “PewDiePie” to know their beloved YouTube celebrity is now wrapped up in a story on a mass shooting, the video clip is news.
The outcome of Twitter’s decision to force removal of the material means my account is now locked for 12 hours for an unclear Terms of Service violation related to a single posting that contained information of news value. This means I am unable to pick up where I left off in covering the unfolding situation in New Zealand (though there are no shortage of good journalists who are covering events there — though it’s questionable whether they, too, will post something that Twitter will arbitrarily determine to be against their Terms of Service).
I’ve reached out to Twitter’s press team and Brandon Borrman, Twitter’s Vice President of Communications, with questions about what happened to my account, clarification on Twitter’s Terms of Service and inquiries about why those terms seem to be haphazardly applied to journalists and news outlets across the board. They have not yet returned my request for comment.
To the 40,000 people who follow my account because they trust my judgment and ability to report fact-based news, I am sorry that this happened. In the 12 years I’ve been publishing news to Twitter, this has never happened before, and it’s unclear to me why it happened now. I hope to be able to continue delivering the news to you shortly; in the meantime, you can reach out to me at mail[at]matthewkeys.net or find me on Facebook.