Remember the Arab Spring? Back then, a lot of people thought Twitter helped usher in a democratic revolution in the Middle East. A commitment to free speech was then a hallmark of its brand, often repeated by now-departed company stalwarts like Biz Stone, Evan Williams, and, later, CEO Dick Costolo.
Today, there's been a shift.
Under the guise of cracking down on "harassment," Twitter has done things that look increasingly like regulating speech. The latest example is Milo Yiannopoulos, a columnist at the right-wing news site Breitbart (disclosure: I wrote a few columns for a fledgling site Milo once ran, and we hung out and I like him). On Friday, his check mark, that Twitter badge of status that denotes an "verified" user, was removed with almost no explanation. A while back, Twitter banned the right-wing investigative blogger Chuck Johnson, for tweeting he would "take down" Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, a phrase which was interpreted as a threat of violence even though it's obvious Johnson meant "publish an investigative piece that would destroy his career".
You might not like all these writers or things they've said, but, of course, that's the whole point when we're talking about free speech. I might not like what you have to say, but, etc. etc. as Voltaire supposedly said.
Let's get a red herring out of the way first: Sure, as a private sector company, Twitter has the right to ban whomever it likes. But this is a fatuous point. Twitter is also a global communications utility used by hundreds of millions of people, and it is both in its interest and the public interest for it to be as neutral as possible with regard to the content of what it publishes. And if Twitter has the right to ban whomever it likes, I have the right to criticize them for it.
Lots and lots of people love Twitter, and it's a shame if the platform is being politicized. Because from my vantage point, it seems that the people being banned or punished for vague "violations of terms of service" all seem to come from the same side of the political aisle. In the case of Yiannopoulos, it appears that someone who works at Twitter saw a tweet he didn't like and reported him internally.
And certainly there's something to be said about the cowardice, hypocrisy, and lameness of claiming that all you're doing is protecting against "harassment." Of course, there are certain kinds of harassment that social platforms should protect against. But when you're debating politics with someone on a quick-fire online forum, "harassment" is in the eye of the beholder.
I'm sure I've said many things to many people on Twitter that could be called "harassment" by some incredibly vague and Orwellian standard. Come to think of it, I can think of a few left-wing bloggers who have said things about me that could definitely count as harassment. (And that's nothing compared to the countless racist Twitter trolls who every once in a while spam my mentions because I've written a couple of columns in favor of immigration reform.)
In retrospect, it doesn't seem surprising that a Silicon Valley company would slide down this path. Silicon Valley has traditionally been a pretty apolitical place, not in the sense that it doesn't have a politics — of course it does — but in the sense that it mostly ignores partisan bickering and culture wars. But, in the past few years, as the rest of the country has grown more polarized, and as Silicon Valley has grown more influential, the tech world has increasingly taken for granted the kind of left-wing identity politics that San Francisco is known for. This is surely not in the tech ecosystem's long-term interest, as it is precisely Silicon Valley's lack of identity politics that has been such a key attractor of innovators (read: weirdos).
The strange thing is that this new Twitter "policy" doesn't seem to be a policy at all. It just seems to be a company thoughtlessly responding to the forces of political gravity. If Twitter had decided that it's in its own best business interests to jettison free speech, that would be one thing. But if middle-managers, in the rush to avoid lawsuits or punish ideological adversaries, are changing the direction of one of the world's most beloved sites, that's another. And I hope it stops.