Twitter has discovered its backbone, and it’s in the shape of a banhammer.
On Wednesday, Twitter introduced new, long-overdue anti-harassment tools. In a more effective and direct move, it also suspended a number of white supremacist figureheads. This mass ban follows a July incident in which right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos emboldened his followers to tweet a barrage of racist and misogynistic remarks at actress Leslie Jones. Twitter took the unusual step of permanently banning the Breitbart editor and writer. That perma-ban now appears to be the first in a series of moves to limit the white supremacist influence on Twitter.
The most high-profile of the recently ousted, Richard Spencer, is a white supremacist who has advocated for a separate white state within North America. The accounts for Spencer’s think tank and magazine were also suspended. The Southern Poverty Law Center called him a “professional racist in khakis.” Twitter isn’t the only place he is not welcome; he is also banned from visiting the United Kingdom for fears of inciting ethnic violence, and in Hungary for breaching “the human dignity of others.” Paul Town, Ricky Vaughn, John Rivers, and Pax Dickinson — all high-profile members of the white supremacist community euphemistically known as the “alt-right” — were also suspended.
The ousted users’ argument against the suspension is that their free speech rights are being trampled. Spencer argued that, although he supported Yiannopoulos and did not believe he should be banned, Yiannopoulos could have been categorized as engaging in harassment, while Spencer and the others who were just banished had not been up to Yiannopoulos-level antics. “I, and a number of other people who have just got banned, weren’t even trolling,” he says in his video statement. “I was using Twitter just like I always use Twitter, to give people some updates and maybe to comment on a news story here and there.”
“I was using Twitter just like I always use Twitter” is, in fact, terrific justification for expelling Spencer, as he always uses Twitter like a white supremacist. Because what so many people fail to understand is that simply talking like a white supremacist is against Twitter’s own rules.
Twitter does not allow direct or indirect threats of violence, nor does it allow accounts that are “inciting others” toward harassment. This is the company’s “hateful conduct” rule:
“The Twitter Rules prohibit targeted abuse and harassment, and we will suspend accounts that violate this policy,” Twitter said in a statement to USA Today, though it declined to elaborate on exactly what triggered the suspensions.
This lack of specificity about which tweets or kinds of behavior got these men kicked off Twitter enraged some of their followers, who referred to the action as “corporate Stalinism.” Spencer also called it “corporate Stalinism” in his video statement, comparing the “purge” to the Night of the Long Knives, which was when Adolf Hitler ordered the killings of other Nazis who threatened his power. That would mean that Spencer sees Twitter (or Jack Dorsey?) as Hitler and he and his friends as unsuccessful underling Nazis who just happen to be less powerful.
It does not matter if Spencer, Dickinson, and the others in the “purge” were specifically tweeting slurs or threats. (And sure, call it a purge — a purge of racists.) What matters is that the ideology of white supremacy is inherently hateful. It threatens other people on the basis of race and ethnicity. In fact, threatening other people based on race and ethnicity is the underpinning of the philosophy. To declare the white race superior bolsters aggression and antipathy toward minority groups. White supremacy is a fundamentally hostile belief system. This means that any person who uses Twitter to espouse white supremacist views, even if they are doing so in an obsequious, mild-mannered fashion, is still running afoul of the company’s rules. This is not about tone, or about rudeness versus politeness. It’s about amplifying pure, gleeful racism.
Twitter is probably taking this stance to make itself more amenable to corporate suitors like Salesforce and Disney, which have reportedly balked at purchasing the flailing company because of its pervasive abuse problems. I am not saying that Twitter is pure of heart, or trustworthy. But this is a declaration of intent that should be celebrated. Twitter wants white supremacists off its platform, it does not allow white supremacist behavior as per its rules, and it’s now, finally, more fully enforcing those rules.
Twitter is a publicly traded company but it is not a public utility. It’s a publisher with extraordinarily low barriers for third-party publishing. (The same is true of Facebook, which is why it is so absurd that the platform refuses to even define itself as a media company.)
It is crucial that people look at the content that Twitter permits and the content it bans with a skeptical eye and be wary of an agenda. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other social networks operate as powerful amplifiers of voice and tools of speech, and it is worrisome that these companies are often opaque arbiters of what is hateful and what is simply mean, what is radical and what is treason; the definitions are slippery. I have expressed concern, for instance, that Facebook and Twitter have refused to define what they categorize as “terrorist” content. Facebook has mistakenly banned important, newsworthy photographs. This is what I wrote at the time:
This banishment is, certainly and unequivocally, Twitter taking a side in a propaganda war. It is political, and it is something we should take extremely seriously. It is also something we should applaud in this instance. White supremacy is an inherently hateful ideology. Twitter has defined itself as being against hate speech, and now it is silencing mouthpieces who promote hate.
Along with “white advocate” Jared Taylor, Spencer gave a statement to BuzzFeed News calling on journalists to condemn Twitter’s actions, noting that outlets that do not condemn Twitter will be assumed to “support the suppression of certain political views.”
This is an absurd, reaching statement made by desperate men. White supremacy has many homes on the internet. What was once thought of as a fringe movement has been surging online. Stormfront, for instance, has more than 300,000 users who share content related to this extremist ideology; hate speech is welcomed and encouraged there. Gab.ai, a new social network created in opposition to Twitter’s hate-speech moderation, is a digital gathering place for “alt-right” white supremacists. Meanwhile, Stephen Bannon, the Breitbart publisher beloved by the white supremacist community, has been appointed as a White House strategist, prompting celebration on Stormfront, where Bannon is seen as their avatar and voice bending the president-elect’s ear. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” one Stormfront user noted.
Content moderation is not censorship. Banishment for failure to adhere to the rules of one digital publisher is not tantamount to political suppression. And Twitter is a better, bolder company for enforcing its rules.