Twitter can crack down on hate and harassment while preserving free speech

Sam Groves

Twitter garnered criticism last week after it cracked down on a handful of alt-right figureheads on the site, revoking verification from several and suspending one. For a group that derides its opponents as sensitive snowflakes prone to whining and hysterics, the alt-right’s response was a predictable blizzard of whining and hysterics.

Jason Kessler, organizer of August’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, accused Twitter of changing its verification policy in order to “censor” him. “Is it not okay to be proudly White?” wondered a de-verified Richard Spencer, while fringe pundit Laura Loomer compared the crackdown to Hitler’s “final solution.” Racist troll Baked Alaska — the internet pseudonym of Tim Gionet — livestreamed a nine hour tantrum in the parking lot of a Californian In-N-Out Burger after getting banned.

Of course, white nationalists are welcome to all the whining and hysterics their cold hearts desire. But even outside of fringe circles, Twitter’s decision touched off yet another round of anxiety about free speech in the online era. And as always, much of it was unnecessary. If anything, the crackdown didn’t go far enough.

As a private company, Twitter has no obligation to let people say whatever they want on the platform. The First Amendment keeps the government from silencing most kinds of speech, but social media sites are broadly free to do as they please. That being said, free speech is a good thing — regardless of who is or isn’t obligated to protect it — and Twitter’s founders have been vocal about their commitment to free speech in the past. It’s not unreasonable to expect them to honor that commitment.

But honoring that commitment means preserving the conditions most fruitful for free speech — conditions under which people aren’t afraid to respectfully voice their opinions. And the alt-right poses a direct threat to those conditions. A study released in August showed that self-identifying members of the alt-right are much more likely to engage in offensive behavior and harassment. 

Kessler, for example, was charged in October with allegedly publishing the address of an anti-racism activist online “with intent to coerce, intimidate or harass.” And after a counter-protester was killed at his rally in Charlottesville, he tweeted that the victim was a “fat disgusting Communist” and that her death was “payback.”

And Twitter didn’t ban him.

De-verification is a fairly lenient form of punishment, not to mention a perplexing one. While the blue check is something like a status symbol on Twitter, all it really means is that the person tweeting from the account is who they claim to be. Awarding verification to a user elevates them by making them important enough to be distinguished from imposters, but confiscating one is a fairly meaningless gesture. If Twitter truly believes these users abuse their platform, then they should consider imposing real consequences — and an ill-conceived notion of absolute free speech should not stay their hand.

Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.