Twitter announced that in order to combat abuse and harassment on its increasingly unpopular online platform, that it would enact new rules and regulations that would hopefully get control of things. The stated mission was to cut down on loosely-defined “harassment.” But, what it seems to really be is yet another example of someone with a little bit of power behaving arbitrarily in favor of their “team.”
Twitter didn’t call it “censorship.” They called it “fighting abuse to protect freedom of expression.” Ok, fair enough. Since it gives away accounts for free, and every lunatic has access to a computer, the barrier for entry on Twitter is very low. That means that the guy who used to stand on the street corner and scream at the clouds, or the crazy cat lady, both have as much access to Twitter as someone reasonably intelligent. The underside of the human condition is ugly and brutish, and if you spend 15 minutes on Twitter, you figure that out.
Twitter has every right to try and get ahold of things. If I ran Twitter, I wouldn’t be very proud of it. And, its value is rapidly plummeting, both as a website worth visiting, and in financial terms. I’d imagine that this is, in no small part, because people are just sick of the bullshit on Twitter. While you can’t really express much nuance in 140 characters, you sure can express stupidity and cruelty in less than that. You can form a mob and ruin Justine Sacco’s existence with very little effort. Meanwhile, these bite sized chunks of shit do very little to promote discourse.
So I’ll admit that if I ran Twitter, I’d probably engage in a little bit of a crackdown myself. I believe in an expansive view of freedom of expression, but I am not an absolutist. I get close, but I think that free speech absolutism is simply intellectual laziness. There is a line.
Where is it? I’m not sure precisely — that’s part of my personal search for truth, and I’m not done with it yet. But, I do know that we have to draw a line somewhere.
If you recoil in horror, consider Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. In 1994, that radio station was the Zyklon-B of the Rwandan genocide. Would I go back to 1994 and “censor” RTLMC? Yes. But, we must admit, that is a hell of an extreme example. But, it at least demonstrates that I can defend freedom of expression, but I’m not a religious zealot about it. (On the other hand, I do not think I would approve of censorship to prevent hypothetical localized harms).
With that out of the way, I don’t have any problem with Twitter deciding that it wants to be less of a shithole and more of a place where people can go to express themselves and read other peoples’ expressions without it turning into an intellectual trash-heap. Remember: it’s their site, their rules.
Nevertheless, I do fault Twitter for is its hypocrisy and its outright lies about what it claims that it is doing. Twitter is not at all interested in making Twitter a “nicer” place, nor promoting more constructive discourse. Twitter is taking a side in the culture wars, and it has chosen that it will be the destination of choice for the “social justice warriors” echo chamber.
A stark example came to light this weekend when Milo Yiannopoulos discovered that his account had suffered the “discipline” of having his official public figure status revoked. On Twitter, the real public figures get a blue checkmark next to their names so that people realize that they’re dealing with the real celebrity, and not one of any number of imposters, impersonators, or satirists. Mr. Yiannopoulos is, for those who are uninitiated, a conservative who frequently disagrees with the “social justice warrior” mentality. And that’s strike one against him. Yiannopoulos had the audacity to disagree with certain politically correct notions, and thus he was subjected to this minor form of discipline.
His reaction was a bit over the top, but far be it from me to criticize him for being hyperbolic. He immediately launched the hashtag “#JeSuiMilo.” Equating losing a little blue checkmark next to your name to the murders at Charlie Hebdo makes me spit a little. But, I’m not entitled to an offense-free existence, so if Mr. Yiannopoulos wants to damage his own credibility by trying to compare himself to those who actually laid their lives at the altar of freedom of expression, so be it. I’m not going to let that get in the way of the fact that he has a valid point.
And what is his valid point? There’s not a damn way that his account would have suffered any discipline at all had his views not been from the disfavored side of the debate. For all Twitter’s lip service to freedom of expression and prevention of abuse, Twitter believes in neither. As Allum Bokhari wrote, “The fingerprints of social justice warriors, who delight in redefining political disagreement as “harassment,” are all over this new rule. Twitter’s reputation for arbitrary, politically-motivated punishment looks set to grow.”
In fact, in order to test Twitter’s so-called newfound prevention of harassment, I have tracked a number of Twitter accounts and even have set up decoy accounts. In what I’ve tracked, so far, pretty strong “harassment” emanating from accounts that purport to promote a “social justice” or feminist agenda remain unscathed – even with pretty extreme content, up to and including death threats. However, even slightly offensive messages coming from conservative voices wind up being disciplined. Thus far, the experiment has not gone on long enough to actually call it “scientific,” so I’m not going to say that the early stages of studying the bias in Twitter suspensions is ready for prime time – but it is certainly confirming what we hypothesized.
Twitter, we see through your bullshit. It’s okay, you can simply announce that you’ve decided to take a side in the culture wars and you’re just not going to apply the rules the same way to conservatives as you will to liberals. You can say you’re going to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and anything else you want. But please don’t pander to us by trying to tell that this has anything to do with “harassment” or “free speech.” Somebody, or a group of somebodies in your organization has a political agenda and you’re going to use your power, diminishing as it is, to promote that agenda. That’s allowed. Maybe it will even make you more popular than ever, but just cut the lies. Because some of us are watching and we know better.
This post originally appeared on Popehat. View it here.