"The Tweets must flow," activists declared back in 2011. Their passion was in response to respective governments’ attempts to thwart the burgeoning uprising dubbed the Arab Spring. And Twitter was complicit.
Many users accused the company of censorship and threatened a one-day boycott after Twitter revealed that it could remove tweets in certain countries with "different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression."
The stakes are different today. Twitter is now under fire from many quarters for various abuses. It is trying to staunch the bleeding of negative comments. As a result, the social media platform is walking a fine line between addressing abuse issues and censoring free speech.
Quick to Respond
Groups of users recently boycotted Twitter for 24 hours because the company temporarily disabled Rose McGowan's account during the ongoing Harvey Weinstein scandal. Twitter reacted promptly, with CEO Jack Dorsey tweeting,
“Today we saw voices silencing themselves and voices speaking out because we’re still not doing enough. We decided to take a more aggressive stance in our rules and how we enforce them.”
Heretofore, Twitter had been painfully silent when it came to the abuses mentioned above. Now, it is feared that to save its reputation and its business, it may overreact. The result could be the stifling of free speech and expression. Dorsey’s email on the issue details the changes that are in the offing. Here are some excerpts from the email:
RE: PORN (unwanted sexual advances)
Pornographic content is generally permitted on Twitter, and it’s challenging to know whether or not sexually charged conversations and/or the exchange of sexual media may be wanted. …we currently rely on and take enforcement action only if/when we receive a report from a participant in the conversation.
We are going to update the Twitter Rules to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable. We will continue taking enforcement action when we receive a report from someone directly involved in the conversation. Once our improvements to bystander reporting go live, we will also leverage past interaction signals (e.g. things like block, mute, etc) to help determine whether something may be unwanted and action the content accordingly.
RE: HATE AND VIOLENCE
To be newly implemented:
We are still defining the exact scope of what will be covered by this policy. At a high level, hateful imagery, hate symbols, etc will now be considered sensitive media (similar to how we handle and enforce adult content and graphic violence).
At a high level, we will take enforcement action against organizations that use/have historically used violence as a means to advance their cause.
We already take enforcement action against direct violent threats (“I’m going to kill you”), vague violent threats (“Someone should kill you”) and wishes/hopes of serious physical harm, death, or disease (“I hope someone kills you”). Moving forward, we will also take action against content that glorifies (“Praise be to for shooting up . He’s a hero!”) and/or condones (“Murdering makes sense. That way they won’t be a drain on social services”).
All is not straightforward when you drill down into the content. Regulating violent or harassing content that interferes with the experience of other users, prohibiting “hateful” imagery, symbols and content is a vague and subjective restriction. Not only that, it would be unconstitutional if enforced by the government. It would also engender screams of outrage from the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other liberal-leaning voices.
Maybe the liberal voice, Glenn Greenwald, sums up the dilemma best. After Twitter suspended the account of Harvey Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan, he commented,
“At some point, it will hopefully become clear that demanding Silicon Valley executives regulate online speech is a terrible idea.”
It may indeed be so. Twitter (along with Facebook and Google) at first resisted calls for strict speech policies. The companies didn’t care about the content of their platforms - until they became dominant. Now, they're flummoxed by their new-found power. How are they to be meaningful, fair arbiters of content when the Right has been accusing them for years of political bias and now the Left - including the mainstream media, European governments, and left-wing advocacy groups - are the ones that demand the platforms enact stricter rules?
Whether from the Right or the Left, the push for companies like Twitter to take action on its own is fraught with peril for free speech and free expression. It invites censorship, which is something those companies have abhorred for a decade. Just because the clarion call now comes from a Leftist slant doesn’t diminish the danger to liberty from arbitrary censorship.
Opinions are the writer's own.