A Twitter newly dedicated to curbing harassment on its platform is finding that its every action can result in a firestorm. Nearly a week after a little-known conservative writer was booted, the wider world of alt-right Twitter is now boiling in turmoil over his ouster. At least one high-profile tweeter, Adam Baldwin, has quit the platform in protest over the company's speech policies.
The issue erupted when Robert Stacy McCain, a self-described anti-feminist writer, was suspended last Friday for “participating in targeted abuse,” according to a Twitter email he posted on his blog, which also said his account will not be restored. (Twitter would not comment on the email's validity.) It remains unclear what, exactly, he tweeted that led to the ban.
Some conservatives now argue that McCain is just the most recent victim of a new push by Twitter to police speech that unduly targets those on the right, and contradicts its long-standing commitment to free-speech. By centrally determining who can post and who can’t, they argue, Twitter is now acting as a sort of media censor.
And while it’s important to note that Twitter has banned people of all political persuasions, and that the crackdown does not seem agenda-driven, McCain is far from the only conservative to be affected. In January, for example, Twitter removed right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s verification badge due to unspecified rules violations. All of which is giving some of its more outspoken users pause.
“In trying to lure new users with promises of ‘safety,’ [Twitter] risks destroying the sense of free-wheeling openness that attracted many of its existing users,” Robert Tracinski, a senior writer at The Federalist, wrote in response to McCain’s suspension.
Harassment is a complicated problem for Twitter and the people who use it. While it has tools for muting and blocking other people, vicious tweets can come in so fast and from so many angles that those tools are often ineffective. Also, problems can spill out from Twitter into the wider internet, and even into people’s very homes. It’s not uncommon for one person to post a target’s personal information to Twitter, for example, that ultimately results in a swatting attempt by someone else.
Twitter has been pushed to do more to curb this type of harassment on its platform for years, and has experienced some embarrassing public failures when it’s been unable or unwilling to do so. Zelda Williams, for example, quit the platform for a time after being harassed following the death of her father, Robin, in 2014.
Complicating matters, Twitter has long declared itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” so any effort to remove people or tweets inherently contradicts that stance, and unsurprisingly sparks protests from its users. The seemingly contradictory goals of openness and safety put Twitter in a difficult position. When a political voice like McCain’s says things that Twitter says violate its terms of service, the company has to make a difficult choice: Does it come down on the side of supporting free speech, or combatting abuse? In this case, the company chose the latter.
Twitter’s actions in this effort have serious implications, since much of the political discussion that once took place on the open web now takes place within the walls of social platforms. Losing your seat there is like getting kicked out of the town squares of old, you’ll have to work much harder from the outside to be heard.
“Our abusive behavior policy prohibits targeted harassment and violent threats, and we will suspend accounts violating that rule when they are reported to us,” a Twitter spokesperson said in response to a BuzzFeed News inquiry.
Earlier this month, when it unveiled a new Trust and Safety Council, Twitter made the case that finding the balance between speech and safety isn’t easy: “The volume of content on Twitter is massive, which makes it extraordinarily complex to strike the right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power.”
Reached via phone Tuesday night, McCain said he’s not concerned the Twitter ban will silence his voice. “The thing is that I’m an innovative person and I’m a survivor,” he said. ”I’m a winner. I’ve been winning my whole life. The idea that my personal voice will never be heard again on Twitter. Ha! We’ll see.”
Still, he admitted he missed Twitter. “It was fun,“ he said. “But they don’t want me anymore. It’s kind of weird. This is a weird experience to be a hashtag.”