On Thursday night, the latest installment of what CEO Elon Musk has dubbed the “Twitter Files” was published on the social media platform, this time with a bombshell-promising thread from former New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, who now runs an online magazine called the Free Press. Weiss, like fellow Twitter Files author Matt Taibbi, was given access to internal documents of the company by its new owner in order to interrogate the content-moderation actions of Twitter’s leadership before Musk bought the company. Many extremely online right-wingers have long accused Twitter of being biased against conservatives. Weiss’ thread, like Taibbi’s from a week earlier, tells them just what they want to hear.
Weiss’ focus is on Twitter’s ability to deamplify accounts so that, for example, they are boosted less by the platform’s news-feed algorithm or are barred from trending topics or search (a policy Twitter has been open about, publicly describing it in a blog post in 2018). Among several examples, Weiss cites the platform’s treatment of Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account that remains active despite its connection to multiple acts of terror and intimidation from far-right extremists, including multiple bomb threats against a children’s hospital. This portrayal of Libs of TikTok as representative of accounts posting conservative views is alarming. The implication seems to be that platforms that seek to protect users from harassment and violence—which is what Libs of TikTok has repeatedly inspired—are engaging in anti-conservative bias when they do so. Weiss contrasted the treatment of Libs of TikTok by Twitter with a post harassing Libs of TikTok using personally identifying information that was not taken down by Twitter staff, which seems to have been an error on Twitter’s part. (All content moderation involves human error, and thus far Weiss has not demonstrated any sort of consistent pattern on any side.)
Weiss may be best known for a column introducing “the intellectual dark web,” a group of anti-progressive types fixated on the concept of cancel culture and the idea that liberals routinely censor conservative ideas. With the Twitter Files, she describes herself leading a team that has been given “broad and expanding access” to Twitter’s internal documents and communications. This group includes opinion writer Abigail Shrier, who is best known for writing Irreversible Damage, a book opposing transition for female-assigned people on the grounds that an unproven social contagion is the root cause of transmasculine identities.
It is unsurprising that this team highlighted the treatment of an account notorious for its anti-trans activity. But Libs of TikTok goes far beyond expressing political opinions about transgender issues. That would certainly be allowed under Twitter’s policies, which exist to curb harassment, violence, and hate speech, not opinions. In fact, Libs of TikTok has repeatedly highlighted specific individuals, events, and institutions with inflammatory language, often falsely suggesting they are guilty of heinous acts against young children. The account’s spotlight has repeatedly resulted in harassment and violent threats toward the individuals involved, in a process typically referred to as stochastic terrorism. Those targeted include doctors and hospitals that provide gender-affirming care for youth, teachers and schools with inclusive policies, and all-ages or youth-focused drag events.
Contrary to the extremist rhetoric, gender-affirming care is supported by all mainstream medical organizations as potentially lifesaving for young people with gender dysphoria. It is also perfectly possible to speak with children about the existence of transgender people and about families headed by same-sex parents in an age-appropriate, nonsexual way. All-ages drag events are places where kids can see members of the drag community in elaborate full-body costumes providing innocent entertainment in the name of inclusivity and fun, and even adult drag shows are raunchy rather than sexual in nature. However, the issues with Libs of TikTok and the Twitter Files are fundamentally not about anyone’s opinion on gender-affirming care, diversity in schools, or drag. They’re about the conflation of stochastic terrorism with conservative opinions, and the refusal of many conservatives to recognize or respect any line drawn between the two.
Armed white supremacist gangs seem to closely monitor Libs of TikTok’s posts to find new targets, based on the multiple incidents associated with those named on its Twitter feed. Account owner Chaya Raichik, meanwhile, has done nothing to attempt to calm, dissuade, change how she communicates, or otherwise bring an end to the pattern of violence and near-violence driven by her posts. These often include misinformation as well as a conflation of healthy, age-appropriate discussions of diversity with child abuse. Instead of seeking to end the violence directed at the targets she chooses, Raichik and Libs of TikTok are constantly toeing the line, attempting to stop short of what is officially considered either harassment or hate speech, and occasionally catching a ban when Twitter decides that line was crossed.
This is a well-known problem in content moderation. Humans are social learning machines, which means we excel at finding and exploiting any edge cases or uncertainty in a set of rules. As a result, the best practice in content moderation has always been to employ sensitive, thoughtful, nimble human moderators, people who can become aware of patterns of evasion or gamification of the rules and act to delete posts and warn, limit, or ban accounts that repeatedly flout the spirit of the rules, even if those users insist to the end that they’ve followed the policies to the letter. In the case of an account that has repeatedly been a driver of real-world violence, the decision to ban it permanently seems as if it should have been an easy call to make, even if Libs of TikTok never wrote the words “I want you to commit violence based on this information.” However, although Twitter has suspended Libs of TikTok several times, it remains active and no less likely than ever to be a driver of violence against the LGBTQ community and its allies.
For whatever reason, Twitter has struggled with this case, opting instead to impose five separate week-long bans on Libs of TikTok, each for violating its policies against hate speech or harassment. The account and its supporters vehemently insisted the bans were unfair, and even threatened to sue Twitter if it were ever permanently suspended from the site. None of this is particularly unusual for bad-faith actors in a moderated online space, but most moderation teams seem better able to ignore the spin and expel those actors based on the totality of their behavior than Twitter has been. In fact, Twitter may have gone in the opposite direction, coddling the account despite repeated violations of the rules. Based on information Weiss herself has shared, the company directed moderators never to take any action in regard to the high-profile account, instead elevating every issue to the highest levels of management. This preferential treatment of Libs of TikTok, while not acknowledged by Weiss, is concerning. It implies that instead of placing the repeatedly banned account on a short leash, in light of its connection to real-world violent acts, ordinary moderators were unable to ensure that Libs of TikTok followed Twitter’s policies at all.
Perhaps the most alarming thing of all isn’t how one prominent account, however dangerous, is or is not dealt with by one site’s moderation team. Rather, it’s the conflation of extremists who drive real-world harassment, violence, and threats with conservative opinions and views. If any action to ensure the safety of LGBTQ users on a platform is considered by conservatives to be tantamount to bias against their views, it’s hard to understand what the difference is supposed to be between the views and the violence itself.
The right to express one’s opinions without fear is one most Americans hold dear. It’s certainly one that’s been jealously guarded by the right, who hold that even harsh criticism can somehow abridge one’s free-speech rights. So surely actual violence can be recognized as a threat to the freedom of speech of LGBTQ people, their doctors, allies, or just people attending a drag show. Libs of TikTok is a very bad Twitter account, one that consistently inflames the most extreme and violent elements on the right, who then act violently again and again. The declarations of this far-right troll that this is not what she intends are predictable, and not really worth giving credence to after the number of incidents linked to targets she chose. That those who consider themselves part of mainstream conservatism aren’t willing to acknowledge the danger and bad faith here is chilling. It suggests that conservative speech and the abuse and harassment of minority groups are becoming one and the same in many people’s minds.