Twitter quietly removed language prohibiting the “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals” from its hateful conduct policy, raising concerns that anti-transgender abuse — already rampant on the platform — will escalate.
The social media giant, which is currently under the controversial rule of new owner Elon Musk, enacted a policy in 2018 that prohibited “deadnaming” (using a person’s name from before they transitioned) as well as misgendering a person in order to harass them. It was part of a series of changes intended to make marginalized groups more comfortable on the platform.
The changes had been implemented to adjust to the reality that a significant number of users on the platform regularly spew vitriol or share insulting memes targeting people based on their membership in a particular group, often based on characteristics such as a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Those who violated the hateful conduct policy could potentially be suspended from the platform until they removed the offending tweet.
But those who ran afoul of the policy frequently complained that their free speech was being censored on Twitter, arguing that their misgendering of transgender individuals — or just merely refusing to acknowledge transgender identity — was a form of free speech, which, when punished, forced other users to curb their own speech for fear of being banned or having their accounts suspended.
As part of the changes to its hateful conduct policy, Twitter will now only put warning labels on tweets that “potentially” violate its rules against hateful conduct, instead of removing them from the platform.
It also claims that offending tweets will be made less visible by being removed from search results or home timelines.
According to The Associated Press, the social media giant appears to have deleted a reference to misgendering and deadnaming transgender individuals from a policy prohibiting “targeting” through “repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category.”
The deletion of the references to deadnaming has been cheered by social conservatives and so-called “gender skeptics” as a victory for free speech, with supporters claiming it now allows transgender identity, and trans-related issues, to be “debated” in the public square without one side being silenced.
The argument they employ — which aligns with Twitter CEO Musk’s attempt to rebrand the service as a “free speech” zone — is that those supportive of transgender identity and rights must now argue effectively in order to sway the public to their side, rather than having Twitter censors influencing the parameters of the “debate.”
LGBTQ advocates have condemned the erasure of the language that — at least, in theory — should have helped protect transgender people from unwarranted harassment and deliberate targeting by trolls or adversaries.
“Twitter’s hateful conduct policy protected trans people from targeted misgendering and deadnaming for close to five years, and now they mysteriously removed it without a word,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement.
“This is unacceptable in any climate, and doubly unacceptable when you look at the barrage of disinformation and hate about trans people from right-wing media personalities, politicians, and the extremists they bolster.”
Ellis added that Twitter’s reversal on deadnaming makes the platform more unsafe for transgender individuals.
“This decision to roll back LGBTQ safety pulls Twitter even more out of step with TikTok, Pinterest, and Meta, which all maintain similar policies to protect their transgender users at a time when anti-transgender rhetoric online is leading to real world discrimination and violence,” she tweeted.
This decision to roll back LGBTQ safety pulls Twitter even more out of step with TikTok, Pinterest, and Meta, which all maintain similar policies to protect their trans users at a time when anti-transgender rhetoric online is leading to real world discrimination and violence.
— Sarah Kate Ellis (@sarahkateellis) April 18, 2023
Despite the removal of the language on deadnaming from the hateful conduct policy, it appears users can still report tweets or direct messages in which a person misgenders or deadnames a person or group of people, and the policy — at least nominally — still prohibits attacks based on gender identity.
However, it appears that the consequences for deadnaming trans individuals won’t be as severe for offenders going forward.
Alejandra Caraballo, a civil rights attorney and clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, told NBC News that Twitter has always been inconsistent in enforcing its content moderation rules, even before Musk’s takeover of the company.
She noted that, in several past instances, she reported anti-trans language or misgendering, only to learn that moderators later found no violation to have occurred.
That said, Caraballo also warns that eliminating specific language around deadnaming from the hateful conduct policy is likely to encourage other users with hostility towards transgender people to feel they have carte blanche to engage in abusive behavior.
“It’s perpetuating this incentive to engage in the targeting of trans people, especially since it’s being favored by the algorithm because it’s creating outrage,” she said. “It’s relating to emotions of fear, anger and disgust, which are typically associated with better promotion by algorithms on social media sites because it increases engagement.”
She warned that this might lead some transgender people to exit the platform altogether.
“[W]hile there’s no perfect replacement for Twitter and what it does, for a lot of people, it’s just not worth it to be subjected to that kind of abuse,” Caraballo said.
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