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Twitter’s photo ban will have a ‘chilling effect’ on memes, expert says

The social platform’s new privacy policy will ban the sharing of private media – data protection and digital human rights expert Dr. Giulia Gentile explains what this means for viral memes, celeb photos, and news

Last Tuesday (November 30) – in an effort to protect against harassment, intimidation, and doxxing – Twitter announced a new privacy policy which limits the sharing of “private” photos and videos without consent. 

More specifically, according to a new blog post posted by Twitter, the policy states that “sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person’s privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm,” therefore it is banning “media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted.”

The new policy also states that users will be allowed to report other users sharing their images, and Twitter-elected moderators will review the complaints. If the complaint is deemed as valid and the content is not considered to have been posted for journalistic or public interest values, then the account which posted it will be deactivated.

“We would take into consideration whether the image is publicly available and/or is being covered by mainstream/traditional media (newspapers, TV channels, online news sites), or if a particular image and the accompanying tweet text adds value to the public discourse, is being shared in public interest, or is relevant to the community,” states the blog post.

“We should not underestimate the role of online platforms, such as Twitter, as facilitators of the spreading of information crucial to the public debate”  - Dr. Giulia Gentile

In other words, while the policy update may be well-intended, its wording is vague and leaves a lot up to Twitter’s own  interpretation. Helping us to sort out how it might affect us – from memes to celeb photos and news – is Dr. Giulia Gentile, a fellow in law at LSE law school and an expert in data protection and digital human rights.

“These new rules have significant implications from a freedom of expression perspective,” she tells Dazed. “We should not underestimate the role of online platforms, such as Twitter, as facilitators of the spreading of information crucial to the public debate.” 

Citing events including the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the US Capitol riot last January – in which non-consensual videos of both events received extensive coverage on social media – Gentile explains that the new policy leaves Twitter as the judge of what is newsworthy. Thus, as a private company, the platform may “disproportionately favour some interests over others”, she says.

“Twitter would become the arbiter for the balancing between privacy and freedom of expression online,” she states. “Users may be potentially prevented from accessing news and thus information that contributes to the public debate as a result of Twitter’s decisions.”

Gentile adds: “To what extent do we trust Twitter to carry this complex task?”

As for memes – which often randomly derive from private images – she explains that the app will hold the power to carry two connected evaluations. “First, how the memes contribute to the public debate, and, second, whether they may remain online or not, also taking into account the context in which these images are shared,” she says. “These rules have an evident chilling effect on the publication and circulation of memes.”

“Users may be potentially prevented from accessing news and thus information that contributes to the public debate as a result of Twitter’s decisions” - Dr. Giulia Gentile

Similarly, shared celebrity photos will be judged on whether or not the image is of public interest or if it is intended to harass or intimidate the individual. Gentile explains: “One might reasonably speculate that Twitter is seeking to protect the figures shaping the public debate, such as influencers or politicians which are active on Twitter.” 

The expert also suggests that the policy could be a preventative measure to avoid following privacy legislation. “Twitter may want to demonstrate high compliance with the privacy rights of its users, thus limiting the scope for the intervention of public regulators,” she says.

While the policy’s efficacy remains unknown, Gentile says that Twitter’s right to decide which content is allowed, who counts as a public figure, and what is newsworthy is a “complicated assessment which goes at the core of our democratic systems.” She argues: “It would be highly problematic to allow Twitter to conduct this evaluation.”

Read Twitter’s full statement on the privacy policy here.