Twitter Has Gone From Bastion of Free Speech to Global Censor


27 June 2017

BUSINESS INSIDER — Alfons López Tena was a member of the Catalan Parliament from 2010 to 2012, specializing in clean governance and Catalan independence issues. He gave us permission to run this op-ed.

On June 17th at around 10 am Doha time (07:00 GMT) the Twitter account of Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, a verified account with more than eleven million followers, was suspended due to an organised campaign. Engineers at Al Jazeera Arabic who were in communication with Twitter said there was a “storm attack” of mass reports of the account to Twitter, which forced the algorithm to temporarily suspend the account, but Twitter did not immediately respond to request for comment.

It has been a high profile case of an already well established pattern: Twitter receives significant numbers of complaints at the same time, a mass reporting of an account, and automatically closes it. No warnings, no checks, no costumer’s guarantees whatsoever.

In February 2017, Twitter stated, “We’re continuing to work on ways to give people more control over what they see on Twitter. Last week, we introduced an improvement to reporting abusive Tweets that gives people experiencing targeted harassment more ways to report it.”

Any organised group can now make Twitter work for them censoring the people they target, to make it label their tweets as “sensitive” or “potentially offensive”, to delete all of them, to hide, suspend, and close the accounts they may see fit. It’s enough to launch an organised attack to denounce the targeted accounts as “sensitive”, “offensive”, “harming”, “spam”, and Twitter will obligingly censor it.

By Alfons López Tena

Owing to the secrecy surrounding Twitter’s criteria and algorithms; the gnomic vague published rules, so loosely worded that allow to punish anybody at anytime for anything; the lack of any procedure for punished people to defend themselves; and the automated response Twitter gives of “violating the rules” without any explanation about which concrete rule has allegedly been violated, when, and how; Twitter has become a paradise of bureaucratic censorship, a mix of Kafka’s The Process and Orwell’s 1984 the Chinese Communist Party can only dream of: any opinions an organised group want to erase are labeled “hate speech” “harassment” or “abuse”, and such thought crimes are purged from existence alongside their authors.

Three cases:

– Alexandra Brodsky, an activist and research Fellow at the National Women’s Center of Yale Law School, was first harassed for being Jewish and then her account was suspended in January for allegedly “breaching the rules”, only to recover it after a lot of people directly lodged a complaint to Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey and the press highlighted the case. A large amount of public outcry was needed.

– Maiol Sanaüja, a prominent pro-independence opponent to Catalonia’s government with more than 130,000 followers, had his account suspended last March, and no amount of followers’ protest or press reports have been able to lift it: when a foreigner is censored, Twitter doesn’t care at all.

– An anonymous twitter account strongly replies the American Nazi Party and gets suspended, prompting Jamelle Bouie to tweet: “Love that @Twitter has committed to making the internet safe for actual Nazis.”

Authoritarian-leaning governments have quickly learnt how to trample free speech on Twitter, as Sananand Dhumme wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The BJP also appears to at least tacitly encourage social-media lynch mobs that go after any journalist seen to be stepping out of line. No other major political party appoints trolls to responsible positions.”, but usually those officials act secretly. An egregious exception has been Joan Maria Piqué, Foreign Communications Head of Catalonia’s government, who last February boasted on Twitter of getting accounts suspended by denouncing them of “abusive behavior”, bragging thus: “Go on doing as you do, you donkeys”. As Sarah Kendzior says, those are the optics  of an autocrat: blatant demonstrations of power that proclaim, “We know that you know what we did, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” […]

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