Twitter’s decision to ban the far-right group Britain First must send an uncertain chill through anyone who believes in freedom of speech.
As always, people who support the decision will say that Twitter is a private company so this isn’t censorship. But it is censorship, and it’s wrong.
It is important to allow people to say things that you don’t want to hear.
Twitter’s decision is also inconsistent. When U.S. President Trump retweeted some of Britain First’s tweets, there was a public outcry, yet Twitter defended the tweets on the grounds that people should be allowed to discuss them. Now, those tweets, plus the entire Britain First account, plus the accounts of the group’s leaders, have been removed from Twitter.
There appears to have been a hasty re-write of Twitter’s policies in order to justify the banning of the Britain First accounts. Twitter took no action against President Trump.
Inconsistency is a real problem for Twitter. Here’s one example:
Last week, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal net neutrality laws. The decision was hugely unpopular, and some opponents went so far as to make threats against FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
One person, operating two Twitter accounts, posted a death threat on both accounts:
Not surprisingly, death threats are not allowed on Twitter:
You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people.
What is surprising, was Twitter’s handling of the death threats against Ajit Pai.
I personally reported both threats. One of the offending accounts was removed. The other wasn’t, and the owner has since posted further death threats against Ajit Pai, including a threat to personally “assassinate” him.
What this tells us about Twitter is probably very little. Both accounts were reported at around the same time, but the reports will likely have been dealt with by different people, possibly in different countries, and possibly with different understandings of Twitter’s ever-evolving terms and conditions.
But it does clearly remind us that there is a base-level inconsistency within Twitter. Someone can post death threats on two accounts, and only one account gets banned. Britain First can be banned for posting undesirable content, yet the U.S. President’s reposting of the same content is tolerated.
Whether it wants to be or not, Twitter has become a vital part of how the world communicates. And whether we like it or not, Twitter has policies on what sort of communication is allowed. Twitter must enforce those policies fairly and consistently. Censorship is one thing, but arbitrary and selective censorship is a lot uglier.