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Social Media Platforms Say Wishing Death To Others Violates Policies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have a message for users. Posting that you hope the president dies of the coronavirus is not allowed. The warnings come as the social media companies try to keep up with a flood of reaction to President Trump and the first lady's positive coronavirus tests. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: On Facebook, people are celebrating Trump's positive coronavirus test. Critics of the president on Twitter say, remember when the president made fun of Joe Biden for wearing a mask? And on TikTok, some people recorded their reaction set to the tune of a song from the musical "Hamilton." But Facebook, Twitter and TikTok all say you cannot wish the president dies, and they say that should apply to everyone.

LEAH MCELRATH: We've been asking them to do this for years. Jewish people have been asking. Black people have been asking. Women of every ethnicity have been asking, and they haven't.

ALLYN: That's Leah McElrath. She's a left-leaning activist and writer. Just last month someone made a death threat against her. She reported it, but it stayed up on Twitter for weeks before it was removed. This was just the most recent of many threats she's had. And long ago, she gave up on Twitter and stopped reporting posts.

MCELRATH: And so what I started doing was just blocking immediately. As soon as someone said something that wasn't in good faith or was overtly abusive, I'd just block them.

ALLYN: McElrath says she's blocked 7,000 users and not just people saying mean things, but after users wished harm on her. She joins legions of others, many of them women, who are frustrated with the company's tough stance on posts about Trump. Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic congresswoman in the so-called squad, tweeted, quote, "it's messed up." She went on, quote, "the death threats towards us should have been taken more seriously by Twitter." McElrath agrees, saying, sure, police death threats against Trump, but do it for everyone.

MCELRATH: If someone's threatening his life, absolutely. You know, suspend their account. Call the Secret Service. That's not acceptable. But people have a right to voice feelings. And certainly, this president brings up a lot of feelings.

ALLYN: Facebook, Twitter and TikTok all say they treat all threats the same. To the skeptics, Twitter had a reply. It said, quote, "we agree we must do better, and we are working together inside to do so." To UCLA law professor Sarah Roberts, no one is talking about who the companies are counting on to find the threats.

SARAH ROBERTS: Who are often working as contractors and who are working as low-paid and very sort of powerless kinds of operational members of the social media workforce.

ALLYN: Roberts says she sympathizes with people who've been threatened on social media. She says their experiences fly in the face of what social media companies say - that they treat all users the same.

ROBERTS: In fact, it's totally hierarchical, and it seems to be protecting those who have the most power.

ALLYN: If you look hard enough, you can still find social media posts hoping Trump doesn't recover from the virus. But as the platforms always say, they're doing their best. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly call Sarah Roberts a law professor. She is a professor of information studies.]

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "ANIMALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 6, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
In this report, we incorrectly call Sarah Roberts a law professor. She is a professor of information studies.