Twitter goes full authoritarian

February 10, 2016 • 10:00 am

Twitter has formed a “Trust and Safety Council” to “ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely” on their network.  In principle, I think there should be some monitoring to prevent personal threats and incitement to violence, but this seems to go farther. Have a look at their page on this, which states, among other things,

In developing the Council, we are taking a global and inclusive approach so that we can hear a diversity of voices from organizations including:

  • Safety advocates, academics, and researchers focused on minors, media literacy, digital citizenship, and efforts around greater compassion and empathy on the Internet;
  • Grassroots advocacy organizations that rely on Twitter to build movements and momentum;
  • Community groups with an acute need to prevent abuse, harassment, and bullying, as well as mental health and suicide prevention.

We have more than 40 organizations and experts from 13 regions joining as inaugural members of the Council. We are thrilled to work with these organizations to ensure that we are enabling everyone, everywhere to express themselves with confidence on Twitter.

And here are their inaugural members:

Twitter Trust & Safety Council – Inaugural Members:

What worries me is that I know of some of these organizations, and realize that they aren’t simply trying to prevent incitement to violence or threats to personal safety, but to suppress the form of “hate speech” which often amounts simply to criticism of an organization’s or a person’s views. The Anti Defamation League (ADL), for instance, combats anti-Semitism and racism. That’s an admirable goal, but should sentiments like that be prohibited on Twitter? And, if so, who is to decide what counts as anti-Semitism? The ADL? The Dangerous Speech Project, for instance, equates inflammatory speech with violence:

Inflammatory public speech rises steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, suggesting that it is a precursor of, or even a prerequisite for violence.

You can see where this will lead: someone has to decide what “inflammatory public speech is.”

And, from my experience on the Internet, criticism of people’s views is often construed as “bullying,” so there are anti-bullying organizations involved here too. There is a fine line here, for excessive name-calling, particularly of children, can lead to trauma and even suicide, but even adults who promulgate controversial views—and get pushback—often claim they’re being “bullied.” “Bullying” is often a code word for “strong criticism.”

In the end, some restrictions are necessary on Twitter, but this proposal appears to go way too far. Who will decide what speech is “hate speech” or “bullying speech”?  Where on the list are organizations like FIRE or the American Civil Liberties Union that are dedicating to protecting freedom of speech? I see none. It’s a totally one-sides list, comprising organizations that will censor.

This is a very bad move on the part of Twitter. By implying that they’re creating a space where organizations can express themselves “freely and safely”, they’re in effect going along with the “safe speech” crowd. And what, exactly, does “safely” mean? If it means freedom from threats of violence, I agree. If it means—and I think it does—freedom from unwanted or strong criticism, then goodbye to free speech on Twitter.

As always, the best remedy for offensive or unwanted speech is not censoring your opponents, but counterspeech. Apparently Twitter hasn’t learned that lesson. They have a right to control their commercial platform as they wish, but I don’t think they realize that this kind of thought control is positively Orwellian.

94 thoughts on “Twitter goes full authoritarian

  1. There is a tricky balance here. I think that speech on social media such as Twitter should be pretty free (save for threats of violence).

    But I also think that someone’s own timeline is fairly personal to them, and that if that is filled with a lot of abuse it can amount to harassment, or to something close to harassment.

    Thus I’d suggest that if you @-tag someone, you should only say things that would be normal and acceptable if you met that someone in person in a public place.

    1. I think it is useful to know who is sending threats. It helps know where or who the crazies might be. Of course, some people make threats and regret it. It’s a learning process that can still be useful.

    2. “you should only say things that would be normal and acceptable if you met that someone in person in a public place.”

      If people did that online commenting would die off.

    3. You can easily block someone you don’t like. IIRC any blocked tweets don’t appear on your timeline anymore.

      Someone even developed a Blockbot so a Central Committee for Social Justice can add any perceived malignants to a blacklist, after which you don’t get their @tweets anymore. I’m pretty certain Dawkins and Harris are on it. It’s almost a token of honour to be on that list.

      1. You can easily block someone you don’t like. IIRC any blocked tweets don’t appear on your timeline anymore.

        True, but say you’re a campaigner on a controversial topic. And, as a result, you receive ten abusive and insulting @-tag messages a day on twitter, all from new people. You can block them, but more arrive the next day.

        Some people would not be bothered by this, but I can see that for some it would be a big disincentive to speak up. Which would be a pity.

        1. If you’re a campaigner on a controversial topic, should Twi**er really be your medium of choice?
          Twi**er is an open public forum just as preaching from a soapbox. You may choose that corner soapbox, but you’ll be shouted down by passersby and it’s the same with Twi**er.
          If Twi**er wants to change its policies I don’t see an issue, there’ll be plenty of social media sites popping up and fading away for years to come.
          Now what happened to that myspace page………………………

  2. Sorry to bother you, Dr Coyne, I was wondering whether it would be ok to ask you a basic question that puzzles me relating to Evolution. It’s probably a mixed-up question but I can’t tell. This isn’t the appropriate thread so I’ll leave it there. I’m just wondering where I could place it.

    1. If it’s a private question, you can always email Jerry, his address is easy to find (on this site and by Googling).

      He has recently asked for only one email per day from readers.

      If you have an honest question on evolution, I’m sure he’d be happy to answer you.

  3. In my dreams the censors would strangle Twitter to death and we’d be done with the whole blight. It’s a pox on the mental landscape of the country. Except for the humor. The hard length limit makes for some sharp humor. I laugh out loud at the twitter coverage of the GOP debates, for example.

    1. I think you are looking at the wrong people. I ‘follow’, to name but a few on the page I can see now, Sci Am, Adam Rutherford (sci journalist), Radio 4’s Dr Cobb (who he?!), the Entomological Society of America, Ecowatch, Science (magazine), Darren Naish (Tet Zoo), Nature, etc. Without them & others like them I would be CONSIDERABLY less well informed about science, ecology, environmental issues etc. I am reluctant to use it to voice opinions that I know no one will give a damn about. I can send a tweet to a ‘famous’ (in her/his field) scientist & frequently get a reply. For example, if Chris in the comment above tweeted someone his question, there is a good chance someone could say ‘look here’ or ‘this will answer your question’. People being just plain nasty – the use of an interface seems to divorce some from what they might or might not say in person. Really you should not say what you would not say to the person IN person. Sorry wittering on too long…

      1. Almost as bad as twitter for reducing our thinking down to the most glandular reaction are the visual memes. At first I sort of cheered them on as succinctly conveying a point in a memorable way, but I’ve since come to think they serve only to bring out people’s baser instincts and that they shut down thinking more than they stimulate it.

    1. Yes. Puritanism will not die, no matter how many wooden stakes you drive through it’s heart. It always comes back in some new form.

    1. Indeed, I couldn’t believe the cringeworthy name. I suppose it’s not a coincidence that they aren’t more self-conscious about that.

    2. “They could have named the committee something other than “Trust and Safety Council,” a name plucked from Mussolini’s old governmental org chart.”

      It sounds to me like they got *exactly* the right name.



  4. You can block accounts, right? I’ve been blocked, by Werleman and Meyers, guy named Tony Miano. No threats, nothing vulgar or obscene.

    1. You can be blocked by people you have had zero exchanges with and whom you don’t even follow. Anyone can place you on a block list for whatever reason – they don’t like you, they don’t like your politics, they don’t approve of who you “follow” – and then any users of that list will block you too.

      Blacklists are fun, no?

  5. I have no problem with Twitter insta-banning or suspending accounts of people who use their platform to hurl obscenities and abuse at individuals their have taken a dislike to (of the go kill yourself variety); and sadly there are such people.

    However, I don’t think for a second that it is where it is going to end. Bullying for example, ought to be an easy thing to identify; and on principle no-one should have any issues with bullies being excluded from a conversation when they have shown themselves unwilling to be civil.

    But I have seen “bullying” alleged on social media simply as an attempt to shut down the other side of a debate. Who’s going to police that effectively?

    We’ve already seen systems where users can report on alleged abuses by others horrendously misused. Take a look at the DMCA system on Youtube. Something that should only exist to protect genuine copyright has become the favorite tool of armchair advocacy groups to shut down and damage the Youtube channels of people they don’t like, usually for ideological reasons.

    So, basically, I don’t hold out much hope that this won’t go the same way.

  6. Well, I’ve never gotten a Twi**er account and don’t really intend to.

    What annoys we is that on some web pages now, I can only comment or contribute to on-air discussions using Twi**er (or similar).

  7. I think we can all agree that there is plenty wrong done on ‘the Tweeter’, and elsewhere in the internet commentariat. I see these efforts as an attempt to help with some real problems, but it remains to be seen if they lead to an over-reach.
    We do not necessarily know that the listed groups will try to censor everything that counts as objectionable to them.

  8. If the debate on campuses is any indication, this won’t end well. It is really easy to see this turn into an exercise for defining “safe spaces”).

    Can’t see it? Just think of how any of the fringe pseudoscience groups react to criticism. Criticism of bad ideas gets conflated with harassment & bullying since that has been such an effective strategy to shut down debate.

    It is always best to keep John Cleese’s perspective on speech in mind when discussing where the limits should be:

    Says it all!

        1. I don’t recall it being required but I certainly read it with interest. Along with Animal Farm.

          Excellent video by John Cleese, by the way.


          1. I got it in 6th form, which was 1980 for me. There was another 6th form English class, and they didn’t get it – they got The French Lieutenant’s Woman at the same time. There must be a selection the teacher gets to choose from.

            We also got Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward while the other 6th form class got Tess of the d’Urbevilles.

  9. The whole thing is fruitless. Twitter is not a place to have civil discussions. You only have 140 characters. It’s nearly impossible to express your thoughts and lay out reasoning and evidence in just 140 characters. However, it’s just enough to call someone a fag and tell a Yo Momma joke.

    1. Or as an earlier social phenomenon noted –
      “Taglines: All the wisdom of the Internet in 74 characters”


  10. I’m afraid when Twitter deem harassment by targeted abuse to not contravene the their prohibition of harassment by targeted abuse, there is very little reason to suppose they’ll be capable of ensuring anything.

    They seem to have abandoned any attempt to control trolling and gratuitous abuse even from known serial abusers, some of whom have even had their abusive accounts restored, while other perfectly polite users are still being randomly suspended and opinions can be censored by false spam blocking.

    1. We were writing at the same time – I mentioned in passing the issue you had in my comment below. I think some people would be interested in hearing about that.

      I didn’t’t want to say anything in case you don’t want to, but I think you should reply to this comment with a link to your post about it.

      Just last week someone commented to me on Twitter how much they missed you when I tweeted one of your posts.

  11. Well, I never had much use for Twitter … this sort of confirms that.

    I too am pulled in two directions about bullying. Actual abuse is a real problem, including verbal. But I am not sure I want to stand still for the Anvil Song …

    1. I watched two of her videos at the behest of someone else. I thought, being a feminist and a gamer and in particular a gamer who concentrates mostly on RPGs that I would at least have some common ground with her.

      Suffice to say, my jaw dropped at the incredible dishonesty, the tendentious editing to remove game content that would undermine her thesis and the blatant misrepresentation of ordinary game mechanics as some sort of Machiavellian plot of misogyny.

      She’s either a con artist or a zealot, or possibly a bit of both.

  12. What I really hate to see on this “Trust and Safety Council” are actual individuals who have made questionable claims for years that they have been the victim of “harassment”. For example Feminist frequency aka Anita Sarkeesian.
    How about they have a selection of independent mental health professionals on the board rather than people who have a vested interest in seeing critics banned.

          1. In fact she goes even further than that, she wants Google to change their search algorithms so that things she considers “toxic” don’t show up on search results.

      1. Excellent point.

        Amazing how that happens isn’t it? Who would’ve guessed? (Yes, for those that’re unsure, I’m being sarcastic.)

  13. Why do they need to control what people type at all?

    And are not the people whose speech is being controlled themselves offended by the controls being placed upon them? Why are they not only undeserving of protection from being offended, but actively being offended?

    Others have indicated that there’s already a mechanism whereby you can block unwanted twits. Add another option for screening unknown twits and that’s all that’s necessary.

    Twitter, Inc., certainly has the legal right to force everybody who uses their service to only echo Twitter, Inc.’s, own private opinions…but why anybody else would choose to associate with such an entity is utterly beyond me.

    What’s next…telephone companies screening calls for profanity and dropping customers who swear too much? The Post Office opening all mail and using razor blades to remove offensive content?


    1. Just jumping in here because Ben mentions what I was thinking about. I don’t use twitter so do not know much about it. But, understand it is wide open to the public…like the telephone only worse. It’s like in the old days with a party line so I really don’t get it.

      Do not believe anyone ever considered censoring the telephone so why the typed public word. Do we censor people walking down the street and talking to whomever? Not in this country. That is why they call it land of the free. Almost the only thing that is.

    2. The comparison to the Post Office and phone companies is really not valid. Those services don’t regulate speech content at all. Twitter on the other hand has always been a regulated forum. A few things by Twitter that pass “uncensored” though the Post Office and ISP’s:
      – “pornography”, “excessively violent images” “gratuitous images of death” as defined by Twitter
      – personal information of others, such as social security number, credit card number, street address
      – links to malware

      There are plenty of places for unmoderated forums on the Internet. A well-known one is 4chan, where all of the above and more is allowed. If you want to offend or be offended, it’s a great place to go.

      I certainly don’t have a right not to be offended, but it’s not unreasonable or Orwellian for Twitter to offer a forum that has some standards that it’s users want.

      1. Post office and telephone are not regulated so invalid. First – they are regulated, the USPS is regulated far more than Twitter ever thought about. Not only on what you can and cannot send through it but things like pornography and on and on.

        The Telephone would be the FCC. Same outfit that works the internet.

        1. “The Telephone would be the FCC. Same outfit that works the internet.”

          The FCC “works the internet”. I don’t think so, but thanks for the laugh anyway.

          1. Probably you needed a laugh-track to get through the FCC’s 383 pages of net neutrality regulations last year. Careful you don’t break something.

  14. I’m wondering how much of the reason for this is to cover themselves from potential lawsuits e.g. someone allegedly kills themself as the result of bullying on Twitter. This has probably become more important as they make more and more of an effort to monetize the platform.

    Twitter has its place. It’s not for everybody, but there are ways to control it. Almost all of the people I follow are fellow atheists. There are people who deliberately troll atheists, and they’re pretty well known. Some you can have fun with (they enjoy it too) and others you just block when they turn up.

    There are heaps of great organisations to follow, and it’s excellent for breaking news.

    Anyone who knows the tale of Rosa Rubicondior and Sacerdotus knows how trolls can destroy someone’s reputation undeservedly with the Twitter authorities.

    The BlockBot people are a bunch of a-holes too – your basic Authoritarian Left SJWs. They’re like religious police, except they pass judgement over fellow atheists. If you use a word they consider unacceptable for a “proper” liberal (the “c” word is an example) you make their list. The list is even divided into groups depending on level of “offending.” Of course, being on the list has become a bit of a badge of honour, and people deliberately use the forbidden words just to get on it.

  15. Seems to me that if they take into account all these folks, they won’t be able to say very much. Reminds me of the Keystone Trio song, the Merry Minute.

    The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.
    Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch
    and I don’t like anybody very much!

  16. The CEO of Twitter announced it with the following tweet:
    Twitter stands for freedom of expression, speaking truth to power, and empowering dialogue. That starts with safety.

    Speaking truth to power starts with safety. That may be one of dumbest things I’ve ever read.

    1. Don’t know why my blockquotes didn’t work.

      “Twitter stands for freedom of expression, speaking truth to power, and empowering dialogue. That starts with safety.”

    2. Yeah, the blacks who started the civil rights movement—people like Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—they really had a guarantee of safety when they spoke truth to power. Two of them were assassinated. And where is the guarantee of safety for the secular bloggers of Bangladesh.

      That truly is stupid, but also contradictory. I’m appalled.

  17. Oh fuck.

    “speaking truth to power”
    “empowering dialogue”

    My bullshit detector just went off. Signal strength 10.

    I thought tw*tter was supposed to be a social network, not a activist movement.

    Oh, and their “trust and safety council” – sounds like a prize collection of authoritarian cyberthugs and wannabe censors. Never trust anything with “trust” in its name, and “safety” is usually ass-covering bullshit.

    Sorry for the language but when I come across these censorious morons I instinctively want to swear. 😉


  18. It’s always hard to know where to draw the line when it comes to incitement versus simply exercising free speech, but there’s one very clear line that a lot of these organizations routinely trample over. Hate speech cannot be construed as criticism of ideas, rather it should be limited as threats against people or groups of people. There is of course a murky line there too; e.g. is it a threat against a person to promote the idea that certain races should be oppressed? However, Jerry is right that the current atmosphere is nowhere close to this; rather, any criticism of views is labeled as hateful. This isn’t the way to make progress–I’m going to shower off and watch Hitchens’ speech on speech, that’s always the best remedy for these things.

    1. I get called all kinds of names on the internet, sepecially by creationists, but I don’t regard that as “hate speech”. I’d be concerned only by someone who, I thought, posed a danger to my personal safety. In the meantime they can mock me and call me names all they want.

      1. I wouldn’t either and, as Hitchens said about those who disagree–pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.

        I’ve been on both sides of the political spectrum in my life, but one thing has held steady–I vociferously defend the rights of those who disagree with me to have their say. It’s safe to say my opinions would never have changed were it not for the freedom to openly express ourselves. A “safe” space where you are sheltered from dissent is anything but safe.

  19. Interesting how “safe” and “safety” have acquired new meanings. I wonder if this is temporary or permanent.

  20. My experience of the internet is that 80% of all people who use it just like to see themselves in print. They reply to anything whether they have anything to say on the subject or not. Most replies on twitter, blog sites and facebook are not helpful and are either off topic or derogatory. Perhaps it is time for a watchdog committee who will license who is allowed to talk on the internet and fine those who waste peoples time and talk drivel. It is used like bragging how many friends that you have on facebook most of whom you have never met.

    1. So much negativity. Makes one wonder, why are you here at all? Try going back to email and just good sites, such as this one.

    2. Only 80%? According to Sturgeon’s Law that should be 90%. You’re supposed to be able to screen out the crap for yourself. I do hope your suggestion of a censorship committee is not serious.

      Licensed to talk drivel on the Internet.

    3. “Most replies on twitter, blog sites and facebook are not helpful and are either off topic or derogatory.”

      My inclination obviously was to reply with an off topic derogatory comment, but instead lets keep it on topic, and consider the derogatory response to your idea of a “watchdog committee” to be implied.

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