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Twitter bans ‘dehumanising’ age, disease and disability insults

Image credit: Bigtunaonline | Dreamstime

Twitter has announced that it will ban posts which “dehumanise” people because they have a disease or disability, or due to their age. The policy coincides with an explosion of tweets about the coronavirus outbreak.

The social media platform said that the policy change was not a reaction to the outbreak of the virus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, but was part of its continual effort to update its rules against hateful conduct.

“We couldn’t have predicted that this would happen in terms of the coronavirus,” Jerrel Peterson, Twitter’s head of safety policy, said in a phone interview with Reuters.

Twitter and other social media platforms have long been under pressure to “clean up” hateful content on its platform and handle misinformation and abuse, including in relation to the coronavirus outbreak. A Reuters search for derogatory terms linked to the virus on Twitter found posts calling Chinese people “subhuman” or likening them to animals. The outbreak, which began in China, has spread to nearly 80 countries and territories and killed more than 3,000 people.

Peterson said the three new categories – which include disability and age as well as disease – had been added not because there were more reports of hateful language in these areas but because of the potential for offline harm.

Announcing the new policy in a blog post, it confirmed: “Our primary focus is on addressing the risks of offline harm, and research shows that dehumanising language increases that risk.”

Twitter’s hateful conduct policy already bans attacking or threatening others on the basis of categories such as race, sexual orientation, age, disability or serious disease. This update will mean that those attacks do not need to be targeted at an individual or specific group. Peterson told Reuters: “Even if it’s a tweet that doesn’t have an @mention that likens a group based on their age, disability or disease to viruses or microbes or maggots, something that’s less than human, that can be in violation of our policy now.”

In its blog post, the social media platform urged for any offending tweets to be removed. Tweets sent before Thursday (5 March) would also need to be deleted, but would not directly result in account suspensions, it said.

In July 2019, Twitter expanded its rules to ban language deemed to “dehumanise” people on the basis of religion. Between January and June last year, Twitter’s transparency report said there had been a 48 per cent increase in accounts reported for potential violations of its hateful conduct policies. Twitter said it had acted on 584,429 unique accounts for hateful conduct violations.

Twitter also announced earlier this week that it was testing a new type of content that disappears after 24 hours, similar to the stories feature by Facebook’s Instagram and popularised by photo-sharing app Snapchat. Twitter spokeswoman Lauren Alexander said that this ephemeral content would also be subject to the company’s hateful conduct rules.

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