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the gatekeepers
A New Phase in the Social Media Speech Wars

Facing mounting criticism from some users and media outlets over the incidence of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic content on its platform, Twitter has intensified its crackdown against extreme right-wing users. USA Today reports:

Twitter suspended a number of accounts associated with the alt-right movement, the same day the social media service said it would crack down on hate speech.

Among those suspended was Richard Spencer, who runs an alt-right think tank and had a verified account on Twitter.

The alt-right, a loosely organized group that espouses white nationalism, emerged as a counterpoint to mainstream conservatism and has flourished online. Spencer has said he wants blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Jews removed from the U.S.

As BuzzFeed notes, Twitter regularly suspends large numbers of anonymous accounts that traffic in threats and menacing images, many of which originate from Russian troll farms. But the move the company made last night—suspending the accounts of identifiable individuals merely for espousing disturbing political views—is highly unusual for the once speech-protective company. It’s not clear what specific terms of service individuals like Spencer violated.

This episode highlights the fact that the most important debates over the limits of free speech in the information age will be adjudicated not by courts, but by social media corporations. Clearly, private platforms like Twitter and Facebook are entitled to ban speech that would be protected by the Constitution. And in many cases, they should do so: The oft-circulated alt-right meme showing a cartoon Pepe the Frog flipping the switch of a gas chamber, for example, would probably be considered First Amendment protected speech in the legal sense, but there is no reason for Twitter to offer a platform to accounts that exist for the purpose of blasting such images out to Jewish journalists.

At the same time, there is a risk that the effort to make social media tolerable and safe for all to use will gradually develop a mission creep, with companies censoring a wider and wider array of unpopular political opinions. By eliminating accounts of people who merely articulated loathsome views without engaging in any kind of harassment or abuse directed at specific users, Twitter may have taken a first step down this illiberal path.

The writer Clay Shirky has highlighted the ways that new media has given more exposure to fringe opinions and undermined “the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation,” the way they could in the pre-Internet era. By trying to shut out white nationalist views from its platform, Twitter is moving more aggressively to occupy the role elite media gatekeepers did in the age of print media: Determining which ideas get airtime and which don’t.

But even in the midcentury era of centrist media monopolies, when a handful of anchors and executives in New York had vast control over the flow of information, fascists and communists had small outlets for communicating with one another. In the 21st century, this is much easier: Alt-righters will continue to have magazines, websites, and Reddit threads. And the worry is that, as David Frum has suggested, Twitter’s strike against them will make the conspiratorial message they peddle seem even more potent than before.

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  • Anthony

    The piece begs the question (short version: an argument that invites the reader to assume that something has been confirmed when in fact it has “only” been affirmed or reaffirmed). More to the point, making it safe to air hatred under guise of “free speech” makes it no less culturally/socially deleterious to civil clue (social compact) of a nation. Conspiratorial conclusions aside, we need more actions that bind than those operative while taking liberty with 1st amendment sanction though immolating civil goodwill.

  • Beauceron

    Did they ban anyone from black or latino hate groups, or Leftist groups that denigrate whites?

    No.

    I personally want a fully open marketplace of ideas, barring direct threats of harm. But I suspect what happened is they bought into the false narrative that the alt-right had something to do with Trump being elected. The Alt-Right, on a good day, is a small fringe group that has little to no influence. But if they are going to ban hate groups, they should ban all of them, not just white groups.

    I note, for example, that MECHA has a Twitter account (https://twitter.com/nationalmecha) and the True Tribe of Israel and its members have Twitter accounts (https://twitter.com/the_12tribes) and the New Black Panther Party has several (https://twitter.com/NewBlackPanthr1?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor).

    If you’re going to ban hate groups, fine, but ban ALL of them. I don’t agree with that policy because I am not comfortable with who decides what is hate and what is not.

    • Andrew Allison

      No, no, you don’t get it. The reason Trump was elected was “false” (in who’s eyes) news on Facebook [sarc/]. The frantic search for a reason other that the rejection of the other candidate and all that she stands for is laughable.

  • Andrew Allison

    First they came for alt-Right . . . . What are Twitter et al., afraid of? That their users are so stupid that the more lunatic ravings of some of them will be convincing? Seems only rational, as Beauceron points out, that it should equal-handed, i.e., how about all the Trump hate flooding social media?

    • LarryD

      It’s hard to condemn white nationalism while tolerating black nationalism (Louis Farrakhan) and Hispanic nationalism (La Raza) and preaching hatred of whites (Rev. James Wright, et al). The inconsistency raises suspicions, if not presumptions, of hypocrisy.

      • Andrew Allison

        By any objective standard, the word is promoting rather than tolerating. Of course it’s hypocritical but history tells us that the left exists only to promote, and benefit from, class warfare. You omitted the BLM abomination so assiduously cultivated by the, thankfully soon-to-be gone, unutterably racist current administration .

      • Jim__L

        Not suspicions, not presumptions, but reality.

        What Twitter is doing is the dictionary definition of hypocrisy.

  • FriendlyGoat

    There is an old concept called the Four Gates of Speech which would be helpful to our online lives and social media. 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind? 4) Is this the right time and place?

    Nobody but individuals can impose those kinds of standards and only on themselves. But the platform corporations can impose whatever limitations they think are good for their business models. The big ones may be learning that “anything goes” is not in their best interests.

    • Anthony

      The desire to scapegoat and avoid self analysis pervades (the intelligent person is prone to make significant distinctions, to analyze, compare, reflect and seek out difficulties in proffered propositions whether flattering or promising to oneself or not – we aren’t witnessing very much of that online). Nevertheless, your Four Gates ought to sell themselves.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I don’t know how long the four gates have been around. I think I recall first hearing it from a pastor maybe as long ago as fifty years. Back then he was applying it to the negative effect of verbal gossip. Today we have electronic megaphones, recorders, re-transmitters, retrievers, but, oops, “we” went nuts with it, no?

        • Anthony

          Well, what you have are little men (women) – not all mind you – utilizing technological innovation (IT) to air out “anguished subjectivity” under the motivation that I have something to say (any darn thing – Freud’s id [uncoordinated instinctual trends] perhaps) and will say it – right, wrong or indifferent. The IT anonymity provides cover and opportunity, yes.

        • Anthony
          • FriendlyGoat

            Wapo says “Sorry, it can’t find the page” from this link when I click it. What subject should I be looking for there?

          • Anthony

            Robert Samuelson, The Democrats Aren’t Dead Yet. Sorry about mix up.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Thanks. Got it. Samuelson, being a mostly-right-side economics guy, seems (by omission) to be suggesting that we needn’t consider the interim actions of this GOP alignment which will produce long-term damage to left-side economics. You don’t give away the tax code and just “get it back” some other time. You also don’t undo judges and the precedents they set in favor of corporations over people. As for his blaming this loss on Hillary instead of blaming it on the general rise of nincompoopery in our country, that seems to be the popular national mansplaining right now, no?

            Thanks for references as always. I think Samuelson is far under-forecasting the wind speed in this particular hurricane.

          • Anthony

            Yea, I read him for economics generally but I took data about campaign without thought to writer’s political leanings. You can’t get too worked up about his inclination politically to overlook data presentation. Regarding post-election explaining, well, every pundit, writer, etc. has an opinion. And that’s what they are. I’m sure he knows what long-term possibilities are for both legislation and courts (not under-forcasting may not be a priority) – and if he expresses his views in an economics column, I’ll definitely share.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Speaking of Wapo, did you read the piece entitled Fake News Writer: “Trump is in the White House because of me”?

            This guy is interesting for his take on what I now call the nincompoopery of our country.
            Aside from some of the forums (Twitter, Facebook, Google) wanting to find ways to wash their hands of this stuff, it’s really hard to know how to re-educate ourselves when we are so busy believing just any off-the-wall thing on a site or in a chain email.

          • Anthony

            No, I didn’t read it; but I will. An observation: at the end of the day, FG, Americans have elected our leaders (and perhaps we’ll get the government we deserve, 1/2 kidding). Next to that, many (and not excluding us) have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by propaganda (political and corporate) and many of us behave in a very shortsighted way. Most important, clear thinking may not be one of our current strong suits. Indeed for whatever reasons, voters (citizens/humans) are easily enticed by promises of short-term benefit without concern for the long-term consequences.

            Necessarily; your current reply forces me to examine our psychological fragilities as thinkers and decision makers. A behavior I will ponder on my friend and we will share (as you bring to mind a serious concern) later. But I do think intelligence as it may relate to judgmental powers may be an overlooked factor – that offered without research and in line with your offering.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Indeed. I have often been accused in the comment section of being a Dem partisan, but the challenge I care about is not so much to rebuild the Dem party as to just not have the citizens be tricked so easily with either pure nonsense or the distractions of “bright shiny objects”. One of the dour “advantages” of the present situation is that conservatives will soon be disclosing details previously only slopped over in buzz phrases. They’ll likely pass most of it anyway because they can, but I think many of their supporters are going to be surprised that few of them are “made great again” by what they get.

          • Anthony

            During my undergraduate years, I had a favorite professor – Demon of Demos – who would quote H.L. Mencken and the swarming booboisie (“the denizens of grandstands, etc. – childishly credulous, seeking no more than a job, diversions and comfortable mediocrity for themselves”). Now, he was not denigrating but rather emphasizing how Mencken pointed out how the “obvious chicaneries and obscenities in the spectrum of phenomena which disoriented professors and clear-eyed politicians call democracy” always leveraged the booboisie at their disadvantage. Something else he insisted on was “the masses are handicapped in that they are ready believers in tales and promises of nimbler wits (politicians, et al), prone to give credence to the improbable or very doubtful.” So the societal work is cut out for those hoping to effect the social compact (and the lay of the land is parties inclusive). It ain’t easy FG.

    • QET

      So if someone posts on Facebook “Jesus is Lord,” how does that statement fare under these “principles”? Frankly, it looks to me as though it would fail all 4 according to the progressive milieu that currently rules all media.

      What about if someone posts on Twitter “the danger of climate change is exaggerated”? Or, “climate change alarmism is the product of fraud”? How are those to be evaluated, and by whom?

      And are you, FG, you of all people, really advocating for the general principle of “corporations can impose whatever limitations they think are good for their business models?”

      • FriendlyGoat

        1) Let me know when Facebook prohibits “Jesus is Lord” on its pages.
        2) Note that Facebook actually owns the pages, not individuals.
        3) Corporations always try to act in the interests of their business models, even if fraught with trial, error and then adjustment. That is mere reality and not a matter of my advocacy.
        4) USA voters just voted to affirm such corporate rights on a long term basis beyond the imagination of even the corporations, let alone those of the voters.
        5) It’s hard to imagine someone finding a way to criticize a kindly pastor who was trying to teach maturity and self-control to us kids with the Four Gates in the 1960’s, but you found a way.

        • QET

          Not at all. I acknowledge that you said these Gates are properly applied by the individual to himself, and I don’t dismiss that they are good precepts in that application. But you know as well as I do that whatever gates and filters and principles are adopted will end up being applied by people other than the speaker. That is the issue.

          And I am always surprised at many left-liberals’ distinction of “private corporations” when considering these issues. Facebook is a private organization no less than Woolworth’s with its lunch counters or Christian wedding cake bakers, subject to the anti-discrimination laws. But look how such things are decided upon in the prevailing progressive milieu: a Colorado wedding cake baker was found liable by the state’s civil rights agency for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding, but another bakery who refused to make a cake with certain bible verses on it was found not to have discriminated on the basis of creed but could properly reject the customer because the verses were “derogatory language.” Apparently being a private business is sufficient only if the State agrees with your politics.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I don’t know why you are worried about anti-discrimination laws. Your country just voted by the slimmest of margins to not pass any more and to most likely roll back the present ones. What you also voted for was more cement around any corporations’ rights and ability to control their own businesses. Twitter and Facebook are at complete liberty to self-censor or self-block whatever they wish on their platforms. This is not a result from lib government or in any way related to wedding cakes.

            Meanwhile, my original comment actually has nothing to do with government. Our society is in desperate need of a revival of kindness in our communications with each other. These platform corporations might—-MIGHT—-undertake such efforts if/when they figure out that “anything goes” could be hurting both their country and their future business.

  • Joey Junger

    Twitter went all out to shut down Milo of “Breitbart News” for a flame war he got into with a black actress from the new “Ghostbusters” film, while ISIS still had multiple active accounts with which they could share recruitment videos that featured decapitations. This makes sense, though. As the Podesta leaks reveal, Hillary and her team knew ISIS was state-funded, and she took money from the state actors in question, so since ISIS and Twitter are both technically “with her,” it makes sense for Twitter, Hillary, and Isis to get along better than twitter and Breitbart, or Hillary and Breitbart.

    Incidentally, how serious are these Pepe/ Alt Right-types? I know several Jewish people who re-tweet these antisemitic memes and are friends (both in real life, and online) with the “white nationalists.”

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