Before he was arrested on suspicion of sending pipe bombs to Democrats and critics of President Trump, Cesar Sayoc appears to have been reported to Twitter for making threats of violence against users. And Twitter appears to have brushed them off.
The case illustrates how online extremism and real-world violence can intersect—and how Twitter’s moderators still permit strikingly graphic personal threats against users, even after the company has spent years pledging to make its platform safer.
Sayoc seems to have been active on Twitter under at least two accounts—@hardrock2016 and @hardrockintlent—both of which were suspended Friday afternoon. (At least one Twitter user archived and posted his tweets here.) His Twitter presence was as meme-laden and Trump-obsessed as his van.
Among his archived tweets is one that personally threatened Rochelle Ritchie, a communications professional and political commentator, after she had appeared on a Fox News program criticizing Trump. The tweet in question said (sic):
So you like make threats. We Unconquered Seminole Tribe will answer your threats. We have nice silent Air boat ride for u here on our land Everglades Swamp. We will see you 4 sure. Hug your loved ones real close every time you leave you home.
The tweet included images that showed the victim of a plane crash whose body had reportedly been eaten by alligators in the Everglades.
On Friday, Ritchie tweeted that she had in fact reported that threat from @hardrock2016 to Twitter as a terms of service violation. Twitter’s replied that it had reviewed the report carefully and found “no violation of the Twitter Rules against abusive behavior.” Ritchie screenshotted and posted both the threat and Twitter’s reply.
Asked for comment on the account and Ritchie’s tweet, a Twitter official told me via email, “This is an ongoing law enforcement investigation. We do not have a comment.” Ritchie could not immediately be reached for further comment.
That Twitter moderators evidently reviewed and OKed what appears to have been a direct, personal threat on a user’s life might come as a surprise to some. But to a lot of people who have experienced abuse and harassment on the platform, the company’s response was sadly familiar. Twitter has long maintained a high bar for enforcing its policies, and its moderators tend to take a narrow, legalistic view of what counts as a violation.
The relevant Twitter policy is the one against violent threats and glorification of violence, which reads: “You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people.” Twitter’s explanation notes that “making vague threats” or “wishing or hoping that someone experiences serious physical harm” does not count as a violation under this policy. The threat has to be direct and specific in its intent.
It would take an almost willful literalism to read the threat against Ritchie as anything other than a death threat. But it’s possible that the moderator deemed it vague or nonspecific, or perhaps not credible.
Twitter has always erred on the laissez-faire side when it comes to restricting what people can tweet. But the company that was once dubbed the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” has spent several years distancing itself from that slogan. As early as 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged, “We suck at dealing with abuse.” Since then, it has rolled out a series of changes and clarifications to its policies, replete with lengthy explanations.
Donald Trump and some conservatives in Congress have lately criticized Twitter for allegedly exhibiting a liberal bias and quashing conservative views, and just Friday morning Trump and Huckabee took aim at the company again.
But the threat against Ritchie by an account linked with the pipe bombing suspect offers a dramatic example of the downsides of lax online moderation. That isn’t to say Twitter is responsible for preventing terrorism. But the accounts that appear to be Sayoc’s, along with the memes found on his van, do suggest that Twitter and other social media platforms played in his radicalization.
If it’s true that Twitter knowingly allowed the future pipe bomber to make death threats on its platform, even as his targets protested, it will be hard to escape the conclusion that Costolo’s bleak assessment still holds.