December 6, 2019
Twitter has long faced intense criticism for turning a blind eye to right-wing hate speech on its platform, including by the world’s most (in)famous tweeter, US President Donald Trump. In the face of this relentless criticism, which includes repeated calls for Twitter to slap Trump with an outright ban, company CEO Jack Dorsey has kept coming up with novel — and for many, infuriating — excuses as to why users who clearly violate platform policy should be allowed to keep tweeting.
One of Dorsey’s arguments posits that tweets which violate the rules, but have clear “public interest value,” should be considered grounds for a warning rather than a ban, at least for the first offense. However, the “clear public interest value” of such tweets is clearly in the horrendous nature of their content, which wouldn’t have nearly as wide an audience if they were proscribed from social media sites like Twitter.
In July, Twitter updated its rules against hateful conduct “to include language that dehumanizes others on the basis of religion.” Some critics bristled at the singling out of religion, noting that religion, like political affiliation, is something people choose, whereas gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation and ability status are beyond an individual’s control. People can also object to religions on the grounds that such entities are invented and, in their Abrahamic manifestations, are often themselves supremacist in their core tenets (“saved” vs “damned,” “believers” vs “infidels,” “Chosen People” vs “gentiles,” etc), to say nothing of the fact that they’re all centered around a deity figure whose existence cannot even be proved.
Nevertheless, Twitter has adopted the religion-centric policy. Meanwhile, Trump is free to fire off racist tweets attacking duly elected members of Congress as “un-American” and even “pro-terrorist.” This has led to a surge in death threats against Omar and others, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). It has also led to others to call for Omar’s execution, as well as an Israel-based network of over 20 Facebook pages dedicated to cranking out thousands of Islamophobic fake news posts about Omar and Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
Which brings us to Danielle Stella, a Republican who is running for Omar’s House seat. There is absolutely no evidence that Omar is spying for Iran, but that didn’t stop Stella from tweeting that she might be doing so. “If it is proven @IlhanMN passed sensitive info to Iran, she should be tried for #treason and hanged,” Stella tweeted last week. For her part, Stella says she is simply asking for the “enforcement of federal code,” absent any evidence whatsoever that a crime has occurred.
Twitter subsequently banned Stella from its platform. However, critics note that people shouldn’t expect the company to take such harsh action against Trump and others who spew hate speech on the site. The president, for example, was not punished for essentially tweeting the same thing as Stella, but instead of Omar his target was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led the House Intelligence Committee probe of Trump and his role in Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
There’s also the issue of corporate profit. “What makes Stella different from Trump?” asked Gizmodo’s Matt Novak. “Obviously, Trump’s account of 67 million followers happens to be a cash cow for Twitter. Stella only had about 30,000 followers.”
In an October blog post, Twitter attempted to clarify what world leaders can and can’t tweet, explaining that “promotion of terrorism,” “clear and direct threats of violence against an individual,” “posting private information… [or] intimate photos or videos,” “behaviors related to child sexual exploitation” and “encouraging or promoting self-harm” are grounds for termination of a leader’s account. Also, and arguably far more dangerous, the company says that “foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of Twitter rules.”
“In other cases involving a world leader, we will err on the side of leaving the content up if there is a clear public interest in doing so,” says Twitter.
Earlier this year, Dorsey called Omar after a Trump tweet sparked a wave of death threats against the congresswoman. Dorsey reportedly acknowledged to Omar that his company “needs to do a better job generally in removing hate and harassment from the site.” Banning bigots like Stella is a good first step, but Twitter must do much more. Hate speech is not free speech, and the sooner Dorsey understands that the better off Twitter will be.
“Hate speech is never in the public interest,” Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told Al Jazeera. Ethics In Tech couldn’t agree more.