Should Twitter Censor White Supremacy?

Published on November 1, 2020

While Facebook has been working hard in recent months to evaluate how it can help censor potentially harmful information, Twitter has been largely silent when it comes to censorship over things like white supremacy. Facebook had to come to terms with how its platform could be used to spread harmful propaganda just a few months ago, when the company confirmed that it had played a decent role in the spread of information that fueled the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Now the question remains on the home front when it comes to other social networks: how far should free speech be able to go?

Is White Supremacy Protected Under Free Speech?

The short answer is no, but it is a lot more complicated than that. While white supremacy isn’t technically covered under free speech laws if it classifies as fighting words (which serve no purpose in democracy), it’s often tough to determine what is and isn’t under that category. For this reason it can be hard to determine where the line should be drawn when it comes to banning the content on social media. In the case of Tumblr banning porn, for example, it can be pretty tricky. The website implemented a machine learning algorithm to help distinguish and remove content found to contain pornography. In that, though, the bot has also removed a lot of content that had no intention of being pornographic. Artists, who made up a large portion of Tumblr’s user base, have fled the website to find a better alternative. Because of that, Tumblr is now facing its least amount of traffic in years.

While white supremacy and hate-speech can hardly be compared to pornography and nude art, the situation with Tumblr does show that the line can easily be blurred when it comes to what should be censored and what shouldn’t. Facebook has implemented a much more in-depth reporting system to help users police one another on the platform. Even then, sometimes that’s not enough. Such was the case when the New Zealand shooter live streamed his act of terrorism on the website, where it was left up for quite some time before being taken down. If Twitter were to ban hate-speech like white supremacy on its website, the question arises as to how the social networking app would implement such a form of censorship.

That being said, the pressure has been on Twitter to take a stance against harmful hate speech and other content for years now. In 2018, a protest group called Resistance SF projected the phrase”@jack is #complicit” onto the side of the Twitter HQ building in San Francisco. The move was a means of protesting Donald Trump’s tweets about North Korea at a time when the situation was at its most sensitive. But many protesters also applied the same phrase to refer to Twitter’s complicit nature when it comes to things like hate-speech and nazi propaganda. The username @jack refers to Jack Dorsey, the companies co-founder and CEO.

Twitter Reportedly Toying With The Idea Of Censorship

Finally, after years of protest and suggestion, Twitter is looking into whether it should implement a ban on white supremacy on its website. If it were do to so, what would that look like? The company has previously spoken against censoring this kind of content, claiming that opening the conversation about these topics can better lead to de-radicalizing these kinds of users. Now the company is allegedly rethinking its approach to dealing with white supremacy, according to Motherboard.

“We’re working with them specifically on white nationalism and white supremacy and radicalization online and understanding the drivers of those things; what role can a platform like Twitter play in either making that worse or making that better?,” said Twitter’s head of legal and public policy, Vijaya Gadde, said in an interview with Motherboard of the researchers looking into the possible change. Gadde added that CEO Jack Dorsey also met with President Trump last month to discuss whether or not Twitter’s policy is helpful in aiding the conversation on de-radicalizing white supremacy.

“Is it the right approach to deplatform these individuals? Is the right approach to try and engage with these individuals? How should we be thinking about this? What actually works?,” Gadde added. Twitter has not made any official announcements about whether or not it will be banning white supremacy from its website, but the company has confirmed that it’s researching how to better handle it.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 1, 2019.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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