U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is urging the federal government to open a criminal investigation into Twitter for allowing Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to have accounts on the social media platform. Cruz argues that Twitter’s actions possibly violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.
In a letter sent Friday to Attorney General William Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Cruz stated that he had contacted Twitter about the issue before, and that the company had refused to revoke access to Khamenei and Zarif. In Cruz’s view, this appears to be a “blatant and willful” violation of U.S sanctions, which in general prohibit American citizens and entities from providing goods and services to Iran.
“I wrote to Twitter before writing to you because I believe that the primary goal of [the International Emergency Economic Powers Act] and sanctions law should be to change the behavior of designated individuals and regimes, not American companies,” Cruz wrote. “But when a company willfully and openly violates the law after receiving formal notice that it is unlawfully supporting designated individuals, the federal government should take action.”
Cruz’s letter to Barr and Mnuchin is the latest whack delivered to Twitter in recent days. The platform set off president Donald Trump earlier this week when it added fact-checking labels to his tweets, which falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud. This was the first time that Twitter has attached fact-checking links to the president’s tweets.
Subsequently, Trump tweeted that he would “strongly regulate or close” down social media platforms. He followed through on his threat on Thursday and signed an executive order targeting Section 230, a critical part of the Communications Decency Act that protects websites from liability over what users post on their platforms and allows them to moderate it.
Cruz initially called on Twitter to ban Khamenei and Zarif in a letter in February, claiming that although the First Amendment protects the free speech rights of Americans, Khamenei was not entitled to such protections. In that letter, Cruz said that Khamenei was the “world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
Twitter replied to Cruz in April and said that while there was no place on Twitter for terrorist organizations, violent extremist groups, or individuals who affiliate and promote their illicit activities. It added that it has a policy for dealing with content from these groups. Nonetheless, Twitter said it did not apply this particular policy to military or government entities “because of the public interest in learning about these types of statements.”
In response to Cruz’s assertion that the company was violating U.S. sanctions, Twitter said that making its platform available as a communication tool was not prohibited by sanctions. However, Cruz said this was false in his Friday letter.
Twitter also said that having official government voices on its platform was important during the health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Regardless of the political agenda of a particular nation state, to deny our service to their leaders at a time like this would be antithetical to the purpose of our company, which is to serve the global public conversation,” Twitter wrote.
Per Axios, in light of Trump’s recent tensions with Twitter, other federal officials have also begun questioning the company’s decisions regarding Khamenei’s account. One such official was Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, who asked Twitter if Khamenei’s tweets violated its rules about glorifying violence.
This week, Twitter labeled one of Trump’s tweets (which said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”) because it violated Twitter’s rules about glorifying violence.
The White House’s official Twitter account also posted a screenshot of one of Khamenei’s tweets on Friday and said that the company had determined that “it will allow terrorists, dictators, and foreign propagandists to abuse its platform.”
Twitter has not released a comment on the new Cruz letter.