The pluses and minuses of Twitter as free speech cop

Over the past year, neo-Nazi and alt-right groups have gained increasing prominence, in part because of the rise of Donald Trump and his tacit — and not so tacit — support. And as these agitators have become more active online, critics and victims of their attacks have called on social networks like Twitter to take some action against them.

In an attempt to do so, Twitter is rolling out a new set of rules this week aimed at stifling the activities of neo-Nazis and other hate groups. Within hours of the announcement, a number of prominent alt-right accounts including ** had been taken offline.

The move is being cheered by many as a belated step in the right direction, a suggestion that Twitter has finally gotten the message about the need to filter or block certain kinds of speech.

At the same time, however, Twitter is also coming under fire for blocking the account of Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas, a move that raises some difficult questions about the company’s ability to censor speech, and the risks that doing so poses both for Twitter and for society as a whole.

Blocking or banning Nazi groups and white supremacists may garner virtually unanimous plaudits for Twitter, especially since the problem has been going on since well before the 2016 election. The company’s commitment — or lack thereof — to cracking down on accounts that advocate violence or hateful conduct has been a topic of conversation among Twitter critics for years.

The flip-side of this newfound desire to regulate the speech of certain political accounts is that Twitter has now put itself in the position of being an arbiter of what is appropriate commentary.

Although the company is well within its rights to block or allow whatever it wants to on its platform (since the First Amendment only applies to government action), Twitter’s regulation of speech brings with it significant risks that the platform may remove certain kinds of speech that deserve to be more widely heard, such as the posts by Wael Abbas.

Abbas has been documenting Egyptian government abuse of its own citizens on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, including police brutality and assault, since before the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. His account was suspended by YouTube in 2007 but was later restored. His Facebook account has also been deleted at least once because of controversy over the content he was posting.

By removing his account, other activists say Twitter has deleted a record of the abuse committed by the government. It’s not clear why Abbas had his account suspended, but some believe it might have come as a result of pressure from Egyptian authorities. Twitter won’t say why Abbas’ account has been blocked, saying it doesn’t comment on individual accounts.

The suspension is particularly ironic given that Twitter got a lot of attention for saying during the Arab Spring uprising that it would not stand for totalitarian attempts to crack down on speech by citizens. “The tweets must flow,” the company said in a blog post in 2011. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

The following year, however, Twitter rolled out a new feature it called “country-withheld content,” which blocked certain kinds of content (including user accounts) within a specified geographical area due to local content and speech laws. In Germany, for example, tweets from Nazi and neo-Nazi groups are censored because such views are against the law.

In many ways, Twitter has been struggling with its complicated relationship to speech ever since. On the one hand, the company used to trumpet the fact that it was “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” as one of its senior executives once said. But at the same time, it has faced increasing pressure to remove offensive speech and behavior.

In response to questions from British MPs about hate speech on the platform, Sinead McSweeney — Twitter’s vice president of public policy and communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa — said that the company has realized it is no longer possible to stand up for all speech.

“I look back over last 5 1/2 years, and the answers I would have given to some of these questions five years ago were very different,” McSweeney said. “Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill-style philosophy. We’ve realized the world we live in has changed.”

But this raises the question of what criteria Twitter is using to decide which speech to remove or block. Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram, which is said to be close to the government, stated on its site that Wael Abbas’ account was suspended because Twitter was concerned about “his intention to incite violence, which runs contrary to its guidelines.”

In a Facebook post, Abbas said that when he was first notified by Twitter about the suspension last week, the company said in an email that his account would be deactivated permanently, but in a follow-up email the Egyptian journalist said that Twitter told him his account had been suspended for a specific period, but it didn’t specify how long or the reason for the suspension.

On the Egyptian blog he co-founded, Misr Digital, Abbas said that “Twitter blocking my account, which documented life in Egypt for 10 years — politics, activism, atrocities, corruption and revolution — is exactly like Hitler burning books. A treasure for researchers has been lost, this is what some of those researchers already told me. Thousands of pictures, videos and live streams from the middle of every crisis in Egypt, with date stamp on them, reporting on people who got tortured, killed or missing.”

Some warn that as Twitter becomes more aggressive at taking down controversial content or accounts, it runs the risk of being played by online trolls who have learned how to gang up on certain users by flagging or reporting their accounts and tweets, causing them to be suspended or blocked by Twitter. According to one recent report, this happened to a Reuter’s journalist whose account was suspended.

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