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.