Twitter has cracked down on the alt-right, banning many of its most prominent accounts, including some of its most prominent thinkers and intellectuals. Even though the alt-right is vile, and even though it has targeted me and my family for months of abuse, I’m not entirely comfortable with Twitter’s move. My thoughts:
First, I’m deeply uncomfortable with a platform that is purportedly dedicated to the free exchange of ideas banning ideas it deems (and I deem) distasteful or hateful. My default position is – barring extraordinary circumstances like wartime jihadist recruitment – the cure for bad speech is better speech. It’s a cliché, yes, but its truth and worth are time-tested. It’s a principle I’ve defended my entire legal career.
Second, however, there is a difference between the expression of ideas and direct, targeted personal attacks. The Twitter abuse problem has little or nothing to do with a person or institution spouting off horrible or racist ideas into the Twitter void. No one has to listen. No one has to engage. The true abuse crisis isn’t the spread of ideas but rather vicious and precisely-targeted tweets directed at individuals and their families – attacks that aren’t designed to create discussion but rather to intimidate and threaten.
Twitter has zero moral or commercial interest in maintaining a platform for such attacks, but so long as abusers can not only commandeer my mentions (one free shot before they’re blocked, muted, or reported) but also share vile messages about specific individuals with impunity, it will remain an instrument for an unacceptable amount of evil, and its commercial growth will be capped. The idea that any given day I might see my young daughter’s face in a gas chamber is disgusting – as is the idea that her face continues to be shared on muted/blocked accounts.
Third, while some of the banned accounts may not have trolled anyone, don’t automatically believe their claims of ignorance. It’s well-known that some members of the alt-right tend to “fix” a target with a mention, then dozens or hundreds of smaller, anonymous alt-right accounts will then troll or threaten that person with a barrage of vile, directed tweets. The initial tweet acts almost like the bugle call of a cavalry charge. They know what they’re doing, and they richly deserve their bans.
Finally, there are some who write off Twitter abuse as simply “someone said a mean thing on the internet.” I would submit that if you’re reserving public spaces only for those people who can laugh or ultimately shrug off the worst and most grotesque insults imaginable, then we’re suffering a great loss for zero cultural or political gain. Oh, and most people who dismiss other users’ stories of abuse haven’t actually experienced anything remotely comparable. Talk to me after your third-grader is in the crosshairs.