Twitter and Censorship

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.

Image Source: howtostartablogonline.net

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.

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.”

Twitter once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” but now it says “Making Twitter a safer place is our primary focus”. A safe place for whom? It’s censors, sectarians, and thugs who are served by simply rolling out Twitter’s new tool for oppression, suspending users without warning or recourse and without any visibility into how those decisions are being made or challenge them, and no meaningful recovery mechanism.

Authoritarian-leaning governments worldwide have swiftly noticed that Twitter tools enable their sponsored thugs, humans and bots alike, to get any criticism they dislike simply wiped from existence. All people posting any comments critical of an elected official risks being suspended from Twitter and banned outright with all their posts deleted, being now so easy to force Twitter to eliminate critical speech with its own production, the deployed tool that gives Governments and organised groups the right to criminalise speech and to shut out criticism they find uncomfortable: an organised massive attack of denouncers is all they need.

If you are unwilling to leave Twitter altogether or to self-censor to avoid being denounced and wiped out, there are some measures you can take to protect your account:

– Block anybody at the slightest sign of being a sectarian that hates what you say. Don’t engage in any conversation with those people, a potential denouncer is just giving you rope to better hang you motivating their like-minded sectarians to mass-denounce you to Twitter.

– Get your followers from as much countries you can, diversify the issues you post about, therefore your would-be denouncers won’t ever be so many as succesfully close your account.

Nevertheless, if Al Jazeera has been closed, nobody is safe: if your account is suspended or closed, read carefully Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins,

the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, especially the opinions from Justices Bader Ginsburg, Kagan, and Alito, and consider suing Twitter. A continuous arbitrary censorious pattern bodes finding itself in court, sooner or later, and badly losing. The systematic violation by Twitter of the principles of “due process” and “no crime, no penalty without previous, written, definite, strict law” shall not, will not prevail.

Anyway, becoming a tool for arbitrarious censorship comes at a price. There’s a need for a free, open, neutral platform that Twitter increasingly fails to deliver, hence the creative destruction of capitalism will likely promote other companies up to the task, sinking Twitter into the irrelevance of being a tool for Trump rants, sectarian censorship, and cute cats’ pics only.

This piece was first published by Business Insider and has been republished with the author’s approval.

Alfons López Tena

Alfons López Tena

Alfons López Tena was a member of the Catalan Parliament from 2010 to 2012, specializing in clean governance and Catalan independence issues.A lawyer, former member of Spain’s Council of the Judiciary and an ex-legislator in the Catalan parliament, López Tena is the author of several books on law and secession. He writes for media outlets in the United States, Catalonia, India and Spain.
Alfons López Tena

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