Rats, rodents, maggots, crime. These words have literal meanings, but when they’re used to describe specific places or groups, they take on something more.
It’s something CNN anchor Victor Blackwell pointed out in a moving segment about Trump’s racist use of the word “infested” in tweets — and also something that Twitter explicitly prohibits in its rules against “dehumanizing language.”
It’s no secret that Trump walks all over Twitter’s rules against racist verbal attacks — rules that Twitter neglects to enforce. But it’s important to show the many ways the president normalizes creeping, dangerous discrimination, and Twitter’s failure to stop him.
In the CNN segment, Blackwell reports on Trump’s current and past use of the word “infested,” which he’s often used to characterize the places inhabited by people of color. Most recently, President Trump took a huge swing at Representative Elijah Cummings, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and his home district of West Baltimore. Trump called the district a “rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live[.]”
“When he tweets about infestation, it’s about black and brown people,” Blackwell explained. It’s happened before, the CNN anchor explained, when Trump has talked about immigration in relation to gang violence, inner city crime, and the female POC members of Congress. “Infested,” in Trump’s lexicon, serves as a racist dog whistle.
Using the word “infested” invokes discriminatory tropes that have long been used to describe marginalized groups. Even when not describing people directly, as in Trump’s tweets about crime and vermin, the word connotes the idea the that a place is being degraded by people — dirty and undesirable people, in his eyes — who don’t belong there.
President Trump tweeted that Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district is a “rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
It’s @VictorBlackwell’s home district.
“When he tweets about infestation, it’s about black and brown people,” Blackwell says. pic.twitter.com/VeCIIvQ4SJ
— CNN (@CNN) July 27, 2019
Twitter has specifically taken a stand against this kind of language when used against an “identifiable group,” and prohibited its use on the platform.
In Sept. 2018, the company released a thoughtfully written blog post in which it outlined a new policy against dehumanizing language. It defined dehumanization as “language that treats others as less than human” and that occurs when “comparing groups to animals and viruses (animalistic), or reducing groups to a tool for some other purpose (mechanistic).”
Twitter cited research establishing “dehumanizing language as a hallmark of dangerous speech” and noted that “dehumanization can reduce the strength of restraining forces against violence.” In other words, when you use dehumanizing language online, it contributes to the idea that some groups are less than human, which can facilitate violence in the real world.
The “dehumanization policy,” as it’s called, reads as follows:
You may not dehumanize anyone based on membership in an identifiable group, as this speech can lead to offline harm.
And Twitter defines dehumanization thusly:
Dehumanization: Language that treats others as less than human. Dehumanization can occur when others are denied of human qualities (animalistic dehumanization) or when others are denied of their human nature (mechanistic dehumanization). Examples can include comparing groups to animals and viruses (animalistic), or reducing groups to a tool for some other purpose (mechanistic).
Identifiable group: Any group of people that can be distinguished by their shared characteristics such as their race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, serious disease, occupation, political beliefs, location, or social practices.
The new rules were a welcome theoretical update to Twitter, but it (and Twitter’s other rules) doesn’t mean much if they’re not enforced. Trump has leveled explicitly racist attacks at congresswomen and immigrants alike, and Twitter has declined to suspend or ban him from the platform.
Mashable has reached out to Twitter to confirm that Trump has violated its policy against dehumanizing language, and ask whether it plans to enforce the rules against that conduct if so. We’ll update this article when and if we hear back.