Twitter crackdown sparks free speech concerns

Twitter crackdown sparks free speech concerns
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Twitter's verification program put the company at the center of another political headache this week, with the social media giant stuck between liberals who demand stricter rules about hate speech and misinformation and conservatives who fear the site will target them for their political views.

Twitter's "blue checkmark" verification program is meant to authenticate the identities of high-profile users. But it's also come to be seen as an endorsement or mark of approval from Twitter, sparking outrage when the checkmarks were bestowed on white nationalists like Richard Spencer or Charlottesville, Va., "Unite the Right" rally organizer Jason Kessler.

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The social media site responded to the criticism Wednesday by taking checkmarks away from several users affiliated with the far right or white nationalism, as well as kicking one prominent Charlottesville marcher off the platform permanently.

Further changes are expected next week, when Twitter says it will implement more rules. Twitter declined to comment on the changes. 

While liberals cheered the crackdown, conservatives worried that they'll be punished next. Describing the crackdown, a Breitbart headline declared that “conservative figures” had been “purged.”

One user who lost her verification, Laura Loomer, charged that Twitter was trying to “annihilate conservatives from the internet.”

“They’re absolutely targeting people on the right,” said Tim Gionet, an internet troll better known as Baked Alaska who attended the Charlottesville march with white supremacists and has made anti-Semitic statements on Twitter. “Can you name one liberal that was deverified?”

While several far-right and white nationalist figures affected by Twitter’s policy change on Wednesday lost their verified checkmarks, Gionet appears to be the only one who was outright banned from the platform. 

While the punishments focused on Twitter’s fringe right, some more mainstream conservatives raised concerns about taking away verifications. 

"If they want to ban people, ban them. But verification is to prevent fraud, not to endorse viewpoints," tweeted conservative pundit Ben Shapiro in response to the changes.

Others took issue with a specific provision in the company’s new rules, which states that Twitter can deverify users based on behavior that occurs off Twitter.

“It's worth noting that Twitter can remove your verified badge for behaviors made /off/ the platform,” tweeted Ian Miles Cheong, a contributor to Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller. “Just as well, the company can take action against your account for supporting any group or individual that it claims promote certain behaviors.”

“You know what this means for #MAGA,” he warned, referring to President Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again.”

Cheong told The Hill that he doesn’t support the views of white nationalists like Spencer and Kessler, but argues that it’s damaging for Twitter to censor speech.

“The reason why is: if you drive them underground ... they’re going to radicalize further,” Cheong argued. “The best way to counter arguments is to provide good arguments.”

The Twitter crackdown comes amid concerns that other Silicon Valley firms are discriminating against the right. 

Internet conservatives similarly fumed after YouTube began to strip their videos of ads, cutting into the revenue right-wing internet pundits receive from them. Some of the community’s most extreme members were also incensed when Reddit moved to purge Nazi subreddits from its site.

New decisions from tech companies are frustrating members of the fringe-right, whose communities had blossomed on sites like Reddit, Twitter and YouTube in recent years.

Twitter once declared itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” While the company still prides itself on being a forum for open discussions, it’s now less comfortable with that characterization.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Twitter co-founder Evan Williams told The New York Times in May. “I was wrong about that.”

Gab — a Twitter rival with laxer content rules that British provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and other fringe right figures have taken to after being banned from Twitter — agreed with calls from some right-wing figures for Twitter to be regulated as a utility.

“Twitter essentially is like a telephone,” Gab’s Chief Operating Officer Utsav Sanduja told The Hill. “It is a public utility and it needs to be regulated one.”

Spencer made a similar argument, calling on “Washington to regulate Silicon Valley” on Twitter.

Their sentiments echo former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s push to regulate massive Silicon Valley tech firms like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Such arguments have been made more typically by Democrats like Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenDemocrats turn on Al Franken Schumer called, met with Franken and told him to resign Overnight Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 MORE (D-Minn.), who has advocated for net neutrality-styled regulations of major internet firms. 

Despite increasing calls for tighter oversight of internet firms, such policies are still unlikely in the short term. In the meantime, some high-profile members of the online right see Gab as their next best bet — albeit one with far less reach than Twitter.

Gab says that Twitter’s stricter verification rules have benefited it. Sanduja said over email on Wednesday night that the platform saw a spike of 2,000 new user sign ups on Thursday, the day the new Twitter rules went into effect. 

Gab platform has 310,000 users in total, according to Sanduja. 

“These unforced errors from Twitter have been fantastic for Gab,” the company said in a statement.