This week, Twitter banned the accounts of several “alt-right” figures known for their racist views. Among them was Richard Spencer, director of a white nationalist think tank called the National Policy Institute, who has called for expelling blacks, Jews, and Hispanics from the country. Spencer’s personal account, the National Policy Institute’s account, and the account of his online magazine were all deleted. Pax Dickinson, John Rivers, Paul Town, and Ricky Vaughn were among the other alt-right personalities banned, USA Today’s Jessica Guynn reported.
The moves were reported a day after the social news site announced new policies on harassment and abuse and new tools for users to combat them. A Twitter representative told me the company’s moderation teams have been retrained to more consistently enforce the updated policies.
That would be a welcome change from the company’s opaque and seemingly scattershot approach to enforcement in the past. Twitter’s July move to ban alt-right ringleader Milo Yiannopoulos took a lot of people by surprise, given that the company had seemed to tolerate his long track record of denigrating women and people of color until that point. To underscore how unpredictable Twitter’s crackdowns have been: The white nationalist and chauvinist author Mike Cernovich (who aligns himself with Trump, Yiannopoulos, and the alt-right and is fond of calling people “cucks” and “pussies”) has been anticipating his own Twitter ban since at least January. But his account remains active and continues to carry Twitter’s blue “verified” check mark.
Twitter’s renewed focus on harassment and “hateful conduct,” which includes “non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes” and “behavior that incites fear about a protected group,” comes at an interesting time. The company has endured a barrage of criticism over its tolerance of speech that other social platforms, such as Facebook, have long deemed unacceptable. A former executive’s 2012 boast that Twitter was “the free speech wing of the free speech party” went over relatively well when it was interpreted as a justification for giving voice to Arab Spring dissidents. Its liberal supporters were less enthused when the company took a hands-off attitude toward racial, sexual, and religious slurs from the burgeoning alt-right movement over the course of the U.S. presidential campaign. This fall, at least two companies that had considered buying Twitter cited the platform’s trolls in their decision not to pursue an acquisition.
Now, of course, the candidate who galvanized that racist movement is president-elect. And he has already appointed as his chief strategist Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive who is a central figure in the alt-right. Some critics who have been calling for months or years for Twitter to take a tougher line on harassment justifiably view this week’s course correction as “too little, too late.”
It is too little, too late in the sense that a hate-fueled social media movement has already played its role in electing its preferred candidate to the world’s most powerful office. But if Twitter really is finally getting serious about consistently enforcing its policies, a more appropriate cliché might be that it’s better late than never.
During the campaign, the alt-right—a loosely defined group whose members run the gamut from actual neo-Nazis to the sort of people who think it’s funny to pretend to be neo-Nazis—occupied a fringe position in U.S. politics. Now, with Trump taking the White House and bringing Bannon along, it is about to enter the mainstream. There are already signs that Trump’s election had emboldened bigots throughout the country to taunt, threaten, and intimidate women and minorities more openly and explicitly than before. Twitter’s actions this week suggest that it does not plan to normalize their behavior just because their candidate won. The question now is: In a country that just elected a president who mocks people with disabilities, brags of sexually accosting women, and calls for a ban on Muslim immigration, where will Twitter draw the line?
The seemingly obvious answer is that it can draw the line at behavior that violates its own policies while leaving intact the accounts of people who toe the line on Twitter even if they offend people in real life. In practice, however, that line is going to look rather fuzzy in a lot of cases, with reasonable people differing on how exactly to interpret the company’s policies. If the bans continue, controversy will inevitably ensue.
Still, there is one further step that Twitter could take to bolster its legitimacy in such cases: It could be more transparent about its rationale. The confusion as to who gets banned, when, and why stems in part from Twitter’s practice of not publicly discussing the specific tweets that lead to its account suspensions. In fact, Twitter doesn’t even tell the affected users just what got them zapped.
That might seem prudent from Twitter’s perspective, since citing its reasons for a ban would both amplify the offending tweets and invite the public and the media to relitigate its decisions. On the other hand, it fuels the sense of persecution that helps to motivate the alt-right in the first place. At the same time, it contributes to a sense of powerlessness among Twitter users whose harassers are still active on the service.
Publicly explaining its decisions to ban certain users would be messy for Twitter from a public relations perspective. But there is no such thing as a clean solution to the problem of how to regulate political speech on social media. If Twitter is getting serious about curtailing the ugliest uses of its platform, it’s in for a fight no matter what. Giving users and the public more clarity about exactly what constitutes a violation of its policies isn’t going to insulate Twitter from criticism, but it would at least give the company a stronger claim to the high ground.
Previously in Slate: