Last August, Twitter’s top executives gathered at the company’s headquarters to discuss how to make the site safer for its users. Two attendees proposed banning all speech that could be considered “dehumanizing.” For an example of what they meant, they showed a sample post that featured the words President Trump used to compare certain nations to excrement.
By January, Twitter had backed off from deeming that sample tweet dehumanizing. Instead, the post was included in an internal company slide show, which helps train Twitter moderators, as the kind of message that should be allowed on the platform.
And on Tuesday, when Twitter rolled out its first official guidelines around what constitutes dehumanizing speech on its service, the sample post was nowhere in sight. The company had narrowed its policymaking to focus only on banning speech that is insulting and unacceptable if directed at religious groups.
“While we have started with religion, our intention has always been and continues to be an expansion to all protected categories,” Jerrel Peterson, Twitter’s head of safety policy, said in an interview. “We just want to be methodical.”
Twitter said it had ratcheted down the policy’s scope partly because it kept running into obstacles. When the company sought users’ feedback last year on what it thought such speech might include, people pushed back on the proposed definitions. Over months of discussions late last year and early this year, Twitter employees also worried that such a policy might be too sweeping, potentially resulting in the removal of benign messages and in haphazard enforcement.
“We get one shot to write a policy that has to work for 350 million people who speak 43-plus languages while respecting cultural norms and local laws,” Mr. Peterson said. “It’s incredibly difficult, and we can’t do it by ourselves. We realized we need to be really small and specific.”
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