When should a person be banned from Twitter? When they breach copyright laws? When they incite violence? How about when they express a view shared by the majority of the American public, according to a 2017 Pew Research poll: that whether or not someone is male or female depends on their sex at birth?
“Men aren’t women.” “How are transwomen not men? What is the difference between a man and a transwoman?” These were the tweets by Meghan Murphy, a Canadian feminist and journalist, in November of last year that prompted Twitter to lock her out of her account. These statements, Murphy found out, violated Twitter’s “hateful conduct policy.” Since when?
Since October 2018 when, without the 30 days’ notice the company had promised to give, nor indeed any public notice at all, Twitter made sweeping and retroactive policy changes that included a ban on two activist invented offences: “deadnaming” (referring to a transgender person’s birth name) and “misgendering” (referring a transgender person’s birth sex).
Trouble began earlier that year when Murphy publicly challenged the censorious behavior of a self-identified “transsexual professional dominatrix” and biological male, Hailey Heartless whose legal name is Lisa Kreut (but was Ryan Kreut until 2015). First, Kreut pressured the advertising company for Murphy’s website Feminist Current into terminating its relationship with her site. Then in August Kreut tweeted, “I know someone who works at Twitter safety.”
What did Kreut mean by this? Unclear. However, the same day Murphy’s account was locked and she was told to delete four tweets relating to Kreut (which identified Kreut as a man).
After the initial lockout, Murphy later tweeted, “Hi Twitter, I’m a journalist. Am I no longer allowed to report facts on your platform?” By some stretch Twitter claimed this, too, constituted “hateful conduct.” Murphy wrote another tweet, liked around 20,000 times, criticizing Twitter for censoring “BASIC FACTS and silencing people who ask questions about this [transgender] dogma.” She had to remove that, too.
Murphy faced permanent suspension after she identified Jonathan Yaniv as a man. Yaniv was a trans woman, still presenting as male on other social media platforms, who, like Kreut, was also a figure of public interest. Yaniv filed 16 different human-rights complaints against female estheticians in Canada last year for refusing to wax his male genitalia.
Twitter claims to offer a platform to every side in a political debate: It’s the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” a sentiment emphasized in the company’s mission statement. Which is why Murphy recently filed a lawsuit for breach of contract. Whatever the lawsuit’s chances in court, this is no small matter.
In the age of direct democracy, those who control the debate in underhanded ways can influence political outcomes. In The Atlantic in 2016, Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government and public affairs acknowledged that “a [political] candidate without Twitter is a losing candidate.” In a public debate, a side banned from Twitter — in this case, Murphy’s side — is the losing side.
Twitter recognizes this power. Which is why Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, swore before Congress last year that their policies and algorithms don’t “consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions, period.” But Murphy’s lawyers argue that “Twitter banned the accounts of Murphy and hundreds of similarly-situated users as part of a new regime of viewpoint-based censorship that was intended to chill the speech and debate of its users and the public at large on issues of widespread public interest.”
Another similarly situated individual is Jamie Shupe — himself a former trans-identifying person. In 2013 Shupe legally registered female (later penning an op-ed for the New York Times as a trans woman). In 2016 he became the first legally “non-binary” person in the United States (as noted in the Guardian). In 2019 Shupe desisted, meaning he psychologically realigned with his birth sex, and re-registered as male. This month he appeared on Twitter with the handle @NotableDesister.
However, when Shupe was asked directly by another tweeter whether he thought gender dysphoria was a mental illness and replied, “Yes. I consider gender dysphoria as a mental illness. That’s why I don’t support people with GD serving in the military. I also think it can be a learned behavior and can afflict anyone of any age,” Twitter locked him out of his account.
This is particularly unfair given that Shupe served in the U.S. military for over 17 years. After his service he was diagnosed with “gender identity disorder,” then later “gender dysphoria,” following the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) name change. So if anyone should be able to claim “lived experience” of trans issues, it’s him.
Moreover, Shupe’s medical records show that he received treatment for this at a Veteran’s Administration mental-health clinic. That he can’t say so on Twitter is not just bizarre — it raises serious questions about how big tech might be skewing an important policy debate.