Twitter’s new privacy policy could clash with journalism

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, Twitter said it is expanding its privacy policy to include what the company calls “private media.” The existing policy prevents users of the service from sharing other people’s private information — phone numbers, addresses, and other personal information that might make someone identifiable against their will. Users who share this kind of data have found their accounts blocked or restricted in a variety of ways. The new addition to the policy forbids “the misuse of media and information that is not available elswhere online as a tool to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of individuals.” Twitter said it is concerned because personal imagery can violate privacy and lead to emotional or physical harm, and this can “have a disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents and members of minority communities.”

Twitter’s blog post goes on to say that the ban applies to any imagery — photo or video — regardless of whether it includes actual abusive content. The important criteria, the company says, is that the content was posted “without the consent of the person depicted.” The only exception is if the person in question is “a public figure,” or if the relevant imagery is shared “in the public interest, or adds value to public discourse.” How the company will determine if the content is in the public interest is unknown, and how it defines the term “public figure” is also unclear. The new policy seems likely to re-ignite the kinds of debates that Twitter’s “newsworthiness” standard sparked when it was used to justify keeping abusive tweets posted by former president Donald Trump.

Even if the person is a public figure, Twitter says it may still remove images or videos if it believes that the purpose of the sharing the content was to “harass, intimidate, or use fear to silence them.” How Twitter intends to determine whether the images were posted in order to harass, intimidate, or silence an individual is unclear. The company says it will “try to assess the context in which the content is shared,” including whether the image is publicly available and/or is being covered by mainstream/traditional media, and whether it adds value to the public discourse or is “relevant to the community.” The policy adds that media shared about private individuals is acceptable provided it “contains eyewitness accounts or on the ground reports from developing events.”

This appears to be an attempt to create an exception for eyewitness journalism, but how the company will balance newsworthiness and the public interest with its desire to protect individual privacy is unknown. Some photojournalists and those who represent them are concerned the new policy will make their jobs even more difficult. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said the policy change shows that a lack of understanding that “a person photographed in a public place has NO reasonable expectation of privacy.” If the company chooses to enforce the new rules, Osterreicher said, it will be “undermining the ability to report newsworthy events by creating nonexistent privacy rights.”

Cyber-security expert and anti-fascist activist Chad Loder said the new policy had already been used to block an account belonging to a photojournalist because they posted video of two right-wing extremists planning an attack. Loder also reported that a number of videos posted by an anti-extremism account were removed by Twitter under the new policy, after a complaint from someone involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol building. According to Loder, they and others have been blocked in the past from posting certain images by false DMCA claims, and they expect right-wing groups to try to weaponize the new privacy policy in the same way. “Vague policies and subjective enforcement always favors the powerful,” Loder said.

James Temple, an editor with MIT’s Technology Review, asked whether under the new rule “could an individual or media outlet still share the video of the Central Park birdwatching incident, the couple waving guns at protestors, the Jan. 6 capitol attack, the Kenosha shootings, or the murder of Ahmaud Arbery?” Julian Sanchez, a fellow with the Cato Institute, described the new policy as “a well-intentioned idea that sounds like an absolute horrorshow to actually implement,” in part because social media itself has made it “incredibly thorny” to determine who is a public figure. “Have they become a public figure if the image/video has already gone viral on other platforms? If mainstream news outlets have referenced it? Can going viral on Twitter itself make you a public figure?” How Twitter will answer those questions remains to be seen.

Here’s more on Twitter and journalism:

Vague: Matt Willie, writing for Input magazine, says the new Twitter policy is “frustratingly vague” because it leaves too much room for interpretation. “Is a police officer harassing a protester considered allowable, or could that officer request that Twitter remove the video?” he asked. “Twitter says large-scale protests are exempt ‘generally,’ a term that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its enforcement potential.” In attempting to be as inclusive as possible, Willie argued, Twitter “ends up creating policies that are vague to the point of almost creating more issues than they solve.”

Toxic: In 2019, Farhad Manjoo, a New York Times columnist, argued that Twitter is toxic for journalists. In a follow-up discussion on CJR’s Galley platform, reporter Ashley Feinberg said that while Twitter could be problematic, “it’s also allowed for some things that probably wouldn’t exist without it.” Whether we like it or not, she said, “Twitter is a huge part of how we do our jobs now. I think the best thing any of us can do is realize that someone is always going to be mad, some people are always going to be acting in bad faith, and there’s really nothing we can do to game that, other than just being as honest as possible.”

Editorial: In 2017, after Trump threatened North Korea in a tweet and Twitter changed its policy on removing tweets to add a “newsworthiness” exception, Nausicaa Renner, a former editor with CJR, wrote about how the company’s decision made it even more of a media entity. “By deciding what is newsworthy, Twitter will effectively be making editorial decisions, moving its platform even further into the role of a media company,” Renner wrote. Twitter later tried to clarify how it makes a decision on whether a tweet that violates its rules is protected by the “public interest exception.”

Other notable stories:

Politico reports that allies of former president Donald Trump “are trying to rip up the traditional book publishing paradigm in politics by setting up a publishing house of their own,” called Winning Team Publishing. Trump announced last week that he was publishing a coffee table book of photographs from his time in the White House‚ which has been produced by the new imprint. Politico says the publishing house has “a decidedly MAGA flavor, run by former Trump campaign aide Sergio Gor and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.”

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, claimed in 2019 that the National Enquirer tried to extort him with embarrassing texts and photos related to the breakup of his marriage, material that Bezos’s security team suggested might have come from agents of the Saudi Arabian government hacking his phone. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, “probes by the US government haven’t led to any public action on either front.” The FBI looked into the possibility of a hack as part of a broader counterintelligence investigation, the Journal reported, but nothing came of it.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, wrote that CNN management finally did the right thing by putting star anchor Chris Cuomo on indefinite suspension. “There was no other choice consistent with even a modicum of journalistic standards,” Sullivan wrote, after the New York state attorney general released evidence related to sexual misconduct charges against former governor Andrew Cuomo. Sullivan said the problems arguably began when the network “carved out a major loophole that allowed their host to actually interview his governor brother on air several times.”

Sasha Chavkin, a reporter with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, wrote for CJR about the challenges of reporting on the deforestation crisis in Nicaragua, and how they affected a journalist the team worked with on the project, named Cristopher Mendoza. “When Mendoza returned to Managua… his situation quickly deteriorated. Prosecutors requested a meeting with Mendoza, to ask him about his colleagues at a local news organization, who were facing trumped-up charges of money laundering.” Mendoza postponed the meeting, Chavkin reports, “and fled the country, ultimately arriving in Costa Rica, in exile from the country where he had lived his entire life.”

Sites and accounts that traffic in misinformation use images and videos of cute animals to bring in audiences that will help spread their messages, Davey Alba reported for the New York Times. “The posts with the animals do not directly spread false information, but they can draw a huge audience that can be redirected to a publication or site spreading false information” about election fraud and other baseless conspiracy theories, Alba wrote. “Sometimes, following a feed of cute animals on Facebook unknowingly signs users up as subscribers to misleading posts from the same publisher.”

Archant, which owns a number of regional newspapers in the United Kingdom, said it is planning to close two-thirds of its newsrooms by the end of March because many of its journalists have said they prefer to continue working at home, according to a report from Press Gazette. The company said the “very low” numbers of staff going into its offices, combined with feedback from staff surveys, showed that “home-working was now the preferred option for more flexibility and a better work-life balance.” The publisher will retain four offices, Press Gazette reported, but they will all be downsized.

Dotdash, a digital publishing company owned by Barry Diller’s IAC, said Wednesday it has completed the $2.7 billion acquisition of Meredith Holdings and its magazine titles, including People, Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living, and InStyle. IAC said the deal is the largest in its history, and that the combination of Meredith and Dotdash creates the largest digital and print publisher in the US, reaching almost 200 million people.

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