LGBTQ organizations are calling for a campaign to urge Twitter to do something about the harassment and hate speech that runs rampant on the platform. But the activists might be wasting their breath. Twitter has known about its harassment problem for a long time. And while Twitter’s administrators allow the women and trans people who use their platform to be harassed and threatened, there is one group the site protects: Nazis.
What Is Harassment on Twitter?
Before we go on, let’s define our terms. By harassment, we mean more than unkind words. It’s absurd to expect a social media platform to contain nothing but relentless pleasantries. It would be awful if Twitter banned rude speech or insults. Passionate, angry, insulting speech is a healthy part of political discourse. Many powerful people absolutely deserve to be insulted.
But there are limits. Some forms of speech are genuinely harmful. Death threats, for instance, are an unacceptable form of communication. So is libel. Both of these types of speech are verboten off of the internet. In the real world, a person can face legal penalties for death threats and libel, so why should it be tolerated on Twitter?
“Doxing” (or “doxxing”) a person (disseminating their personal information, like their home address and phone number) also crosses the line from “healthy disagreement” into “potentially dangerous behavior.” The old saying about sticks and stones simply isn’t true: words absolutely can hurt.
For example, a bizarre conspiracy theory called #Pizzagate that spread across Twitter ended up inspiring a man to storm a pizza restaurant with a gun. Someone nearly got shot because of Twitter harassment. That’s a serious problem.
So for this thinkpiece, we’re defining “harassment” as “behavior that can get you sued in real life.”
In a recent thread, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (@jack) asked the community a question:
Following in the footsteps of Brian Chesky: what's the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017? #Twitter2017
— jack (@jack) December 29, 2016
In response, many users asked him to get a handle on harassment and hate speech.
@jack allow more visibility into how harassment reports are handled and prevent repeat offenders from creating new accounts.
— Amber ? (@amberdiscko) December 29, 2016
.@jack I would like a reporting option called “this is defamation” that goes to an actual lawyer and gets shut down
— Counter-Hoon Li'l ? (@karengeier) December 29, 2016
@jack and get a handle on abuse.
— Justyn Howard (@Justyn) December 29, 2016
@jack comprehensive plan for getting rid of the nazis
— saschasegan (@saschasegan) December 29, 2016
Dorsey’s responses were vague and dismissive:
@saschasegan we've been working on our policies and controls. What's the next most critical thing?
— jack (@jack) December 29, 2016
But he was happy to talk in detail about other technical features:
@cloleaf is it more important to edit for spelling/corrections? 5 minute window to edit mistakes or do you need to be able to edit anytime?
— jack (@jack) December 29, 2016
Twitter has promised to deal with its problem. But it hasn’t delivered on that promise.
In Twitter’s defense, it would be incredibly difficult to moderate the community effectively. It’s one giant, open comment section with millions of users all over the world. Looking over every tweet would require tremendous resources. The service is free; how could they possibly afford to hire enough moderators to wrangle millions of people?
So maybe we can’t get too angry at Twitter for failing to solve the problem. Maybe it’s not a problem that can be solved. Maybe the problem lies with the structure of the internet, or with human nature.
But the company could at least try.
Letting the Problem Fester
Twitter has community standards that supposedly forbid harassment. If someone violates the community’s standards, other users can report the offending tweet. Twitter’s moderators can then force the misbehaving user to delete the tweet. Twitter can also suspend or ban users who violate the rules too much.
But for some reason, Twitter just doesn’t do that.
For instance, neo-Nazi dweeb Richard Spencer is still permitted to spread white supremacist hate speech on Twitter. Twitter even gave him a verified account, which means he has special privileges and features not available to other users.
GamerGate figure/failed lawyer Mike Cernovich has a long history of using Twitter to harass other users, recently falsely accusing one of his critics of pedophilia and encouraging his followers to send death threats. Cernovich was also responsible for spreading the #Pizzagate conspiracy theory mentioned above. Cernovich’s behavior nearly got a gay man shot and killed. Twitter hasn’t banned him. Instead, it gave him verified status, too.
It’s bad enough in the West, but it’s even worse for Middle-Eastern Twitter users. Felix Biederman writes:
LGBT, atheist and otherwise dissenting voices on social networks in places like Saudi Arabia are incredibly vulnerable to the doxing of personal information. It’s such a popular activity among the truly devout and sociopathic that there’s now an app that lets you report atheists directly to Saudi cops. Doxing is unpleasant anywhere, but Saudi Arabia is one of the few places where it can easily get you imprisoned, or worse.
Despite the grave consequences for users, Twitter’s support team is unable to take action. Most of the time when a Saudi user’s personal information is shared on Twitter, the doxxer in question isn’t suspended. If they are, it’s many days after the information has been disseminated, and the punishments for the person unfortunate enough to have been doxxed have likely been dealt out. When I spoke to someone familiar with Twitter’s corporate structure, they told me that the company simply doesn’t have enough Arabic speakers on its support team to police doxxing in Saudi Arabia.
(Twitter did, it should be noted, have sufficient skill in Arabic to cash a $300 million check from Prince al-Waleed bin Talal.)
Something very similar happened to Kuwaiti users last summer.
So we can see that Twitter hardly bothers to enforce its community standards. It lets white supremacists brag about wanting to put Jewish people in ovens. It lets bigots slander, threaten and harass other users. It even rewards misbehavior.
But there’s one group Twitter does protect, oddly enough: neo-Nazis.
Wait, Seriously? Twitter Protects Neo-Nazis?
Twitter ignores it when white supremacists and MRAs use the platform to slander and threaten LGBTQ people, women and people of color, but the company is really protective of Nazis.
If you make fun of a neo-Nazi (or a member of a similar hate group), Twitter will punish you.
A user who went by the handle @nifkinjuice says he was suspended for making fun of Craig Brittain, a right-wing extremist who got into legal trouble a few years ago for running a revenge porn site. Here’s @nifkinjuice’s story:
I was suspended at @nifkinjuice on Saturday. This followed two occasions of being locked out. After my time locked out Twitter made me delete tweets. All were to Craig Brittain.
When I got suspended, I figured [Brittain] reported me over and over along with some neo-Nazis I had been making fun of. Twitter came back on Tuesday and said I was engaged in targeted harassment and my account would not be restored. I sent in another appeal and explained how Craig puts people on a future deleted accounts list then goads replies, deletes his tweets and then reports for targeted harassment. They came back and said they reinstated my account.
So Twitter protects revenge porn creeps while letting queer Saudi kids fend for themselves? Surely this is an anomaly.
Writer Karen Gaier (@karengeier) says she was deluged by hate speech and rape threats by white supremacists. She reported the abusive tweets to no avail. But when she fired back with insults of her own (a picture of a fat man grabbing himself and the caption “kiss my tits please”), her account was suspended.
I asked some of my followers if they had been suspended for insulting or threatening Nazis. Here are some of the responses:
@RS_Benedict I got locked for trying to needle one by calling him a "subhuman Slav"
— logo, profane dad (@logophobe) January 12, 2017
@RS_Benedict i caught a very quick suspension when one reported me for joking about killing all the whites
— make it snow (@makeitsnowondem) January 12, 2017
@RS_Benedict I had to delete a bunch of Tweets saying that "white genocide is objectively good." Assumed it was a mass report thing.
— Div (@askforcombi) January 12, 2017
If Twitter lets neo-Nazis shriek racial slurs at other races, then why does it ban users for making fun of white people? If Twitter can’t protect Saudi atheists, why can it protect revenge porn peddlers? If Twitter doesn’t punish a conspiracy theorist for calling someone a pedophile, then why does it suspend someone for calling an alt-right dweeb an “Xavier Cugat-looking bitcj” (whatever that is)?
We can’t help but wonder, whose side is Twitter on?