Why Did Twitter Ban Chuck C. Johnson?

The infamous troll has tweeted some truly horrible stuff. That doesn’t mean he should have been suspended.

Charles C.  Johnson.
Charles C. Johnson.

Photo used with kind permission by Peter Duke

On Saturday, Chuck C. Johnson invited his Twitter followers to send some money his way so that he could focus on his latest project: “taking out” the civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson. Johnson is a 26-year-old California man who has been described as “Twitter’s most infamous right-wing troll” (Mother Jones), a “digital Darth Vader” (Politico), “your least favorite person” (the Washington Post), and “mood slime” (the New York Times). He is best known for outing the subject at the center of the discredited Rolling Stone UVA story, publishing the home addresses of New York Times Ferguson reporters Julie Bosman and Campbell Robertson, and parsing Mike Brown’s Instagram photos for proof of a “violent streak.” So when Mckesson discovered that he had been chosen as Johnson’s next target, he tweeted that he considered Johnson’s statement “a serious threat.” The next day, Mckesson went on CNN to call for Johnson to be permanently banned from Twitter. “I have faith in the platform,” he told CNN. “I hope his suspension is indefinite.”

His wish was Twitter’s command. The next day, Twitter emailed Johnson to say that his account had been suspended for violating Twitter rules “around participating in targeted abuse” and that it “will not be restored.” Johnson had been briefly suspended a number of times before, but this time, it looks like he’s not coming back. An account associated with Johnson’s website, @GotNewsDotCom, has also been suspended, along with @CitizenTrolling, the new handle he attempted to launch after his main account got axed. Media Twitter rejoiced at the news. The political blogger Jesse Taylor tweeted, “I have to think Chuck Johnson’s Twitter suspension was more of a lifetime achievement award.” The New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig said she’d “never seen so many twitter subcultures as united as they are” in “celebration” of Johnson’s ouster. The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey bid him adieu with a jaunty hand-wave emoticon. I’m not going to miss Johnson’s Twitter presence, either. But I think it’s worth examining the line that’s being drawn as we watch him slither away. How Twitter chooses to apply its new harassment policies will affect far more people than little old Chuck Johnson. In fact, it already has.

Twitter’s definition of “abuse and harassment” is vague, and the statement that got Johnson dinged is pretty ambiguous. I don’t fault Mckesson for feeling threatened by Johnson, but that’s not the inevitable interpretation of the tweet. “Take out,” Johnson told me, is just his metaphor of choice for digging up dirt on a subject, and it’s pretty standard political invective. In a 2014 Slate article, “How to Take Out a Supreme Court Justice,” Dahlia Lithwick uses the phrase to refer to politically motivated groups who pour money into campaigns to unseat local judges. Perhaps Twitter’s definition of harassment now includes the act of targeting public figures for mean-spirited, quasi-journalistic investigations, but that strikes me as a pretty dangerous standard.

Meanwhile, Twitter has historically banished users in only the most extreme cases. In November, the nonprofit Women, Action, & the Media (WAM) partnered with Twitter to assist the network in responding to the most serious incidents of threats and harassment that surface on the site. Over a three-week period, WAM received 811 reports from users and escalated 161 of the most pressing to Twitter moderators’ attention; Twitter responded by suspending 70 offending users (giving some the option to correct their behavior, or to appeal the decision), issuing 18 warnings, and deleting just one account.

So why did Johnson, of all the vile creatures who have found shelter on Twitter, get cast away? Twitter told me that it doesn’t comment on individual accounts, citing its commitment to privacy. It could be that Twitter gives users a certain number of chances to stop breaking the rules, and that Johnson had used his all up. But it’s hard not to wonder if Johnson’s banishment has as much to do with the identity of his targets as with the substance of his tweets. In February, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote an email to staff acknowledging that Twitter risks losing “core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.” He promised to start banning trolls “right and left.” Costolo’s statement was seen as a positive step toward eliminating harassment on Twitter, but it’s a little ominous that he only seemed concerned about abuse insofar as it affected the platform’s “core users.” With 133,000 followers, DeRay Mckesson is one of them. In December, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey excitedly tweeted about meeting Mckesson in Ferguson. And in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Mckesson called Twitter “the revolution.”

Journalists are also some of Twitter’s most valuable users. And they rank among its loudest critics, eager to report on how Twitter fails at managing harassment on its platform. (I am one of them.) Silencing Johnson has the added benefit of silencing them, too. When Johnson zeroed in on Mckesson, journalists suggested that Johnson’s very existence on Twitter was evidence that the network’s harassment policies had failed. “As someone who uses this platform extensively” and as “a subject of Johnson’s attacks,” the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery tweeted, Twitter’s inaction is “unacceptable.” BuzzFeed’s Joel Anderson asked Twitter if it was “waiting on someone to die” before it got around to banning this guy. Twitter “can never claim they’ve solved their harassment problem so long as this man remains on it,” one Mckesson supporter tweeted. Banning Johnson from the network practically guaranteed positive PR. As soon as Johnson got booted, Re/Code proffered the move as evidence that Twitter’s new policies are working.

Are they? In recent months, Twitter has emphasized its efforts to strengthen its response to harassment. But its processes have also grown more opaque. In December, Twitter began allowing bystanders to report incidents of harassment they witness on the site. That means that a user targeted with abuse is no longer forced to sift through vile messages in order to report them to the network herself; a friend or follower can help ease the burden. But it also means that Twitter’s attentions may begin to be swayed by the harassment targets who enjoy the biggest follower counts. (Twitter has invited some users, myself included, to reach out to a network rep personally if we have a problem.) In February, Twitter announced that it had tripled the size of the support team it tasks with reviewing harassment claims and said that its employees “now review five times as many user reports” as they used to. That’s essentially admitting that Twitter doesn’t read every harassment report it receives. Most of the network’s new safety features, Twitter says, are not “visible to the vast majority of rule-abiding Twitter users.” It’s hard to know what Twitter is doing to protect its users—and what content it’s shielding us from—if the process is hidden by design.

That’s left some Twitter users wondering how the network’s new order will affect them in the wake of Johnson’s banishment. Johnson believes that Twitter has suspended the accounts of friends and neighbors who have accessed Twitter from his home network. Johnson’s pal Neil O’Brien told me that Johnson helped him set up his Twitter account and teach him the basics of the network; he’s since used it just a few dozen times, mostly to tweet mild anti-government insults, and he hadn’t updated it since May 8. But his account was suspended this weekend, too. According to O’Brien, Twitter told him that he has “been permanently suspended for creating multiple accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes.”

“Chuck is a good friend, but I don’t agree with everything he says,” O’Brien told me. “It feels like guilt by association.” (Twitter, again, won’t comment on specific accounts.) Meanwhile, after one of Twitter’s other famous trolls, Andrew Auernheimer, tweeted in support of Johnson, Auernheimer claimed that Twitter alerted him that his account had been “reported for … encouraging others to target another individual for the purposes of harassment.” He says the network gave him a 48-hour warning to “correct any violating behavior” or risk getting booted for good. But Twitter didn’t specify which tweet had sparked the report, and Auernheimer seems genuinely flummoxed as to how to please the network. Even Twitter users outside of Johnson’s orbit are starting to get spooked. “I am worried about Twitter censoring people … without transparency,” tech entrepreneur Elissa Shevinsky said on Twitter. Twitter’s recent decisions appear to be “based on popularity” and “political values” as much as anything else.

Twitter is “trying to make an example out of me,” Johnson told me this week. On that, if nothing else, we agree. I just wish we had a better idea of what he is being held up as an example of. Does Johnson represent one of the first harassers felled by Twitter’s new, expanded definition of abuse? Does he illustrate the risks of goading Twitter’s most powerful users? Or does he show that when journalists complain, Twitter acts? Twitter hopes to become a destination for news on the Internet. I wish its readers—and its journalists—had a better sense of its judgment.