Remember the early, hopeful days of the Arab Spring? Back then it looked like social media played a key role in helping the people of the Arab countries rise up. And their dictators seemed to agree, trying very hard to ban or block those services.
Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone made a stand in 2011 based on principle:
[F]reedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content. [Biz Stone]
And indeed, Twitter courageously refused to back down in the face of threats from repressive regimes that sought to restrict tweets, whether they came from Arab Spring protestors or Chinese dissidents like Ai Weiwei. Twitter's CEO Dick Costolo famously described Twitter as "the free speech wing of the Free Speech Party."
What happened since then?
Well, the Arab Spring didn't pan out the way the optimists thought in 2011. And neither has Twitter. Though the company occasionally makes noises in favor of free expression, it increasingly sounds Orwellian.
Lately the company talks about tackling "abuse" on the network. And indeed, there's a lot of abuse on Twitter. As a journalist I get a fair amount of it, although I'm willing to believe it might not be as nasty or insistent as what many women or minorities get. I've always found Twitter's "Block" function to be useful in managing the nuisance.
But there's reason to suspect that Twitter's policies about tamping down "abuse" won't tamp down actual "abuse," but just censor political speech.
Twitter recently announced a new "Trust and Safety Council" to help in this task. As Twitter works to "develop products, policies, and programs," the council will "help us tap into the expertise and input of organizations at the intersection of these issues more efficiently and quickly." The council is made up of dozens of organizations. Alongside unimpeachable organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are organizations that explicitly support efforts to limit troublesome discussion. The council includes organizations like the Internet Watch Foundation, the Safer Internet Centre, and Feminist Frequency. Here's where the "Orwellian" part comes in: "speech that doesn't offend anybody" is the opposite of free expression.
After all, as Biz Stone pointed out, some tweets "downright anger a vast majority of users," and that's life. "[W]e keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content." It's also worth noting that while many organizations on Twitter's list have a progressive bent, I couldn't find one with a conservative or libertarian bent. (I can recommend, off the top of my head, the Cato Institute, FIRE, and the Becket Fund.)
This is more than just an idle fear. Last month Twitter stripped right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos of his "verified" user status. Now the company has banned Robert Stacy McCain, an inflammatory right-wing writer. And apparently, not only did Twitter ban him, it also censored the hashtag that welled up in his support.
What's striking isn't just that there may be a political bias in those decisions. The more serious problems are a lack of due process and explanation, and a striking imbalance between what happens to semi-prominent Twitter personalities and the countless run-of-the-mill Twitter trolls who are still at large. And how else could it be? As Biz Stone wrote in 2011, "On a practical level, we simply cannot review all one hundred million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day." And since then, the number of tweets produced every day has quintupled. The Trust and Safety Council can't actually protect users from abuse; its only power is stop controversial users from issuing controversial opinions on Twitter.
Twitter is a private company, not a government entity, of course; it has the right to do whatever it wants with its platform. But that doesn't mean such private censorship is good business sense or beneficial for the proliferation of ideas. Twitter's intentions probably aren't bad, even though they're misguided. It seems like less an active effort to turn into a political propaganda machine, and more the San Francisco equivalent of the "View of the World from 9th Avenue" syndrome that finds it hard to comprehend that disagreeable speech isn't always hate speech.
So it's time for Twitter to get out of the bubble, get some fresh air, and get its house in order. Maybe start with putting some free speech advocates on that Trust and Safety Council.