Remember a few days ago, when Twitter elevated anti-GamerGate leader Anita Sarkeesian to its “Trust and Safety Council,” an imperious-sounding committee with Robespierre-esque powers to police discussion on the social media platform? The goal, according to Twitter, was to make it easier for users to express themselves freely and safely.
One user who won’t be expressing himself at all is Robert Stacy McCain: a conservative journalist, blogger, self-described anti-feminist, and prominent GamerGate figure who was banned from Twitter on Friday night. Clicking on his page redirects to this “account suspended” message that encourages users to re-read Twitter’s policies on abusive behavior.
Before going further, two caveats: First, it may be that McCain is guilty of some genuine Twitter-related misconduct that no one is aware of, and that Twitter suspended his account for non-political reasons. Second, it may be that McCain’s suspension represents overreach on the part of an overzealous underling at the San Francisco company, not the deliberate implementation of a new policy, and that his account will be swiftly restored (though that looks increasingly unlikely).
If there is no more to the McCain case than meets the eye—that is, if Twitter is really breaking with its past policy of protecting users from targeted harassment and abuse and instead moving to systematically disfavor certain political views—then this could be the start of a truly significant moment in the online speech wars, and in the evolution of the media landscape more broadly.
Social media was supposed to democratize the flow of information. In a provocative Twitter essay on the ways that outlets like Twitter and Facebook weaken old-fashioned political establishments, Clay Shirky wrote: “Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window’ — the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation.” In other words, now that the barriers to entry in the political conversation are lower, elites ostensibly have less ability than before to control the narrative.
Twitter’s decision to move against McCain is, in a sense, a challenge to Shirky’s thesis—a gamble that it is still possible for elites to aggressively delineate “the outside edges of acceptable conversation.” We’re just talking about a different set of elites: socially liberal Silicon Valley executives rather than centrist newspapermen and party establishmentarians.
Twitter may be right that it has a lot of room to maneuver here. The notion of social media as a “great liberator” that would inherently empower ordinary people at the expense of their rulers was always overblown—just ask the citizens of free and democratic Egypt. At the same time, it really is true that the Internet has changed the way that ideas are distributed. A person like McCain can gain access to the ears and eyes of people on the mainstream right in a way that similar iconoclasts might not have been able to two decades ago. It remains to be seen whether the genie can be put back in the bottle, or whether the backlash will be too powerful for social media companies to bear.