In late May, President Donald Trump had one of his tweets designated as violating Twitter rules because it was allegedly “glorifying violence.”
It was in reference to then-nascent protests over the death of George Floyd, protests which had begun to curdle into violence along the edges: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Trump tweeted.
On Wednesday, a representative from Twitter appeared before the Israeli Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs via video conferencing software.
Ylwa Pettersson, head of Public Policy, Government & Philanthropy for the Nordics & Israel at Twitter, was asked a question by Arsen Ostrovsky, a non-member of the Knesset described by The Times of Israel as a “pro-Israel activist”:
Why, if Twitter was so quick to attach the label to tweets by Trump, was the company not willing to do so with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s numerous tweets about the death of Israel?
Just so we’re clear, this is the kind of messaging from Khamenei that we’re talking about, all three fired off just a few days before Trump’s censored tweet:
The West Bank must be armed, just as Gaza. The only thing that can reduce the Palestinians’ hardships is the hand of power. Otherwise, compromise won’t reduce a bit of the cruelty of this usurping, evil, wolf-like entity.#FlyTheFlag
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 18, 2020
We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime, and we do not hesitate to say this.#FlyTheFlag
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 20, 2020
The elimination of the Zionist regime does not mean the massacre of the Jewish ppl. The ppl of Palestine should hold a referendum. Any political sys they vote for should govern in all of Palestine. The only remedy until the removal of the Zionist regime is firm, armed resistance.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 21, 2020
So yes, we’re talking about some pretty vile stuff here. Why wouldn’t Twitter be interested in placing the same sort of warning on tweets like that?
This was the answer from Pettersson: “We have an approach toward leaders that says that direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on military-economic issues are generally not in violation of our rules.”
Knesset member Michal Cotler-Wunsh basically gave Pettersson a second chance at that the question while underscoring the implications of what she had just said.
“I just want to fine-tune [Ostrovsky’s] question: Calling for genocide on Twitter is OK, but commenting on the political situation in certain countries is not OK?” Cotler-Wunsh asked.
To her credit (perhaps not the right word) Pettersson stuck to the point.
“If a world leader violates our rules but there is a clear interest in keeping that up on the service, we may place it behind a notice that provides some more context about the violation and allows people to click through if they wish to see that type of content,” she replied.
Trump’s tweet was left up “so the citizens can see what their political figures are commenting [on] and hold them accountable for it online.” As for Khamenei’s tweets, as for why there wasn’t any notice placed on them, Pettersson steered clear of even addressing that.
Cotler-Wunsh didn’t pursue this, merely saying that she had “a sense of double standards” Twitter might be employing. Yes, one might say.
Ostrovsky tweeted the clip, along with her blunt assessment of the exchange.
I kid you not! At Knesset hearing on Antisemitism, @Twitter rep tells me they flag @realDonaldTrump because it serves ‘public conversation’, but not Iran’s @khamenei_ir call for GENOCIDE, which passes for acceptable ‘commentary on political issues of the day’. cc. @CotlerWunsh pic.twitter.com/AXwjkrvlql
— Arsen Ostrovsky (@Ostrov_A) July 29, 2020
Cotler-Walsh also tweeted a somewhat blunter assessment of Pettersson’s remarks than she gave during the hearings.
Wow. Twitter just admitted that tweets calling for genocide against Jews by Iranian leaders DON’T violate its policy!
THIS is a double standard. This is antisemitism.
— מיכל קוטלר-וונש – Michal Cotler-Wunsh (@CotlerWunsh) July 29, 2020
“Wow. Twitter just admitted that tweets calling for genocide against Jews by Iranian leaders DON’T violate its policy!” she wrote . “THIS is a double standard. This is antisemitism.”
This wasn’t just Pettersson extemporizing, either. Last month, the Times of Israel contacted Twitter with tweets specifically calling for Israel’s elimination, also noting Twitter’s own guidelines that “there is no place on Twitter for… individuals who affiliate with and promote [terrorist group’s] illicit activities… Our assessments in this context are informed by national and international terrorism designations.”
Iran is notable as a state sponsor of numerous terror groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah.
Twitter declared the ayatollah’s tweets “are not in violation of our policies at this time,” again saying that “foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules.”
By the way, this isn’t just a matter of a few tweets where Khamenei called for armed insurrection against Israel. In other recent, charming missives, he declared the Jewish state a “deadly, cancerous growth” and compared it to COVID-19.
4. The Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed. Then, the shame will fall on those who put their facilities at the service of normalization of relations with this regime.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 22, 2020
Some argue that the Zionist regime is a reality that the region must come to terms with. Today the #Covid_19 is a reality; should it be accepted or fought?!
The long-lasting virus of Zionism will be uprooted thanks to the determination and faith of the youth. #Covid1948
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 22, 2020
He’s also fond of calling the United States “Satan” and Israel “its chained dog.”
Today more than ever, the interest of the Islamic Nation lies in #unity, the type of unity that creates power against enemies and shouts out loudly at the embodied #Satan, the encroaching US, and its chained dog, the #Zionist regime, and stands up against aggression.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) July 29, 2020
This, notably, was mere hours after the Knesset session.
The White House said the response was indicative of Twitter’s inherent bias.
“I thought it was very eye-opening and it tells you where these social media companies stand, where they’re not willing to assess the Ayatollah Khamenei’s tweets but they are willing to assess President Trump’s tweets,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Friday, according to The Times of Israel.
“It’s really appalling and it just speaks to their overwhelming, blinding bias against conservatives and against this president.”
Former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell also tweeted out the exchange in the Knesset, saying it “should be something the US media reports. Wow.”
This should be something the US media reports. Wow. https://t.co/y5iCNwx7yZ
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) July 29, 2020
More important than social media’s bias against the White House — something I don’t think we needed to hear a Twitter representative shrugging away the depraved ramblings of the Ayatollah Khamenei to deduce — is the startling implications of Twitter was admitting here.
For starters, Merriam-Webster’s definition of “saber-rattling” — “overtly and often exaggeratedly threatening actions or statements (such as verbal threats or ostentatious displays of military power) that are meant to intimidate an enemy by suggesting possible use of force” — doesn’t quite fit Iran’s messaging on Israel.
Tehran does not, at occasional intervals of discord with Jerusalem, exaggeratedly threaten the Jewish state with vague military action. Iran wants Israel gone, as a matter of state policy. The Islamic Republic has made it clear that nothing short of it being gone will suit the regime, and its leaders are willing to sponsor asymmetric warfare (and prepare for symmetrical warfare, should the situation necessitate) to make this happen.
Almost all of their propaganda to this end is anti-Semitic, if not explicitly than implicitly.
If Twitter hadn’t noticed its platform being used for these purposes, the Times of Israel also helpfully pointed out the ayatollah’s nine-point action guide for making this happen, posted almost six years ago:
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) November 9, 2014
Furthermore, when Iran refers to Israel as #Covid1948 — a disease that’s festered since the date of its inception — what are the mullahs implying? The sick metaphor might be timely, but the messaging is timeless: To Iran, the Jewish state isn’t a nation, it’s a disease, and like all diseases you seek to eliminate it from the face of the planet.
It’s not just that. Any state actor who wants to take to the platform and use it to call for the elimination of another state, so long as it falls on the right side of Twitter’s politics or interests, will only have it marked as “saber-rattling.” When it comes to Israel, for instance, don’t expect Twitter to stand up against any rubbish that can credibly (or even not-so-credibly) be considered in defense of the Palestinian cause.
Yes, it’s crucial to note that President Trump is the one world leader the social media giant has seen fit to heavily target with warning labels and “fact-checks.” That’s scary enough.
What transpired in the Knesset on Wednesday, particularly as it pertains to the kind of propaganda Twitter will allow Iran and other nations to spread against Israel, has much graver long-term implications.
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