Twitter has been a powerful communication and messaging tool for all sides of a political debate. It can function as a virtual "town square", a radio network in an emergency, and a propaganda amplifier. For all of the good that can be done via online connections and community, there are some serious downsides, too.
Like just about every other online community these days, Twitter is "self-policed" for the most part. There are algorithms in place to identify potential spammers or other abuse patterns which have the unfortunate unintended consequence of capturing innocent people and shutting them down.
Take, for example, the Great Breitbot Controversy of 2012, where Michelle Malkin got her panties in a twist over Chris Loesch's suspension last June, causing a meltdown in the Breitbart sphere, where nothing is ever too trivial to blame on Barack Obama. And you know, I actually understand why they were upset. After all, Loesch uses his real name, makes no bones about who he is affiliated with, and is an obnoxious jerk. But he's always an obnoxious jerk. There was nothing special about his behavior the day he was suspended. He was, as usual, being abusive and exaggerating the misbehavior of the "libtards" he so loves to bait at every turn.
Things died down. Whatever had been done to the algorithm to suspend people who have been jerks since tweet number one was adjusted. Or the glitch fixed. But if you ask Malkin, she'll claim there are roving gangs of liberals out there with twitching block and report index fingers waiting to suppress conservatives' free speech rights.
As if. Personally, I think people go way overboard in 140 characters. I have a Breitbot out there who has created an entire website devoted to "taking me down" along with fellow members of the StopRush effort. He uses at least 15 accounts to tweet around 100 tweets per day with every name I've ever used and links to his blog calling for my "takedown," whatever that means.
He has made threats on other people's lives while spewing live on BlogTalkRadio, he has associations with groups I'll be writing about in another post, including Breitbart people, and he spams Twitter with vile tweets about my demise, along with the entire StopRush effort. He also buys followers from the same group Mitt Romney used.
But he goes on, just as he has been allowed to for the past eight months, unfettered and free of the dreaded Gulag.
Yet in this one week alone, accounts of people have been suspended who have done nothing against the terms of service. For instance, @NRAPressSecy and @NRAPressSec were parody accounts created to poke at the NRA's cowardly silence after last Friday's tragedy. Within a couple of days of their creation, they were suspended and eliminated. Why? Great question. We don't know. There are a couple of common threads I've identified across all of the suspensions.
Shortly before some accounts are suspended, Todd Kincannon notices them. Kincannon is the former director of the South Carolina Republican Party, a tea party wingnut and a Breitbart's Ghost contender. Todd likes to say things like this:
I'd be far less likely to engage in political advocacy if I wasn't capable of shooting somebody who decided to get violent towards me.
— Todd Kincannon (@ToddKincannon) December 18, 2012
Todd also likes to order his Breitbot attendants around when someone he doesn't like says something he doesn't like. I'm sure he's not doing what so many conservatives decry and attempting to rob people of their speech rights simply because they disagree, right? Clearly a constitutionalist like Kincannon wouldn't be out there trying to squelch people who disagree with him, would he?
Sadly, people who aren't particularly prone to get in online spats with people or fight on Twitter or in blog comments or anywhere else are being caught in the crossfire. Unlike Malkin, I place responsibility for their muzzling on Twitter, and only Twitter.
In the non-virtual public square, people occupy space. They have names. They have a presence. They may give a name that isn't the one they were born with, but that name then becomes associated with that physical presence. In a very real sense, they own what they say and do, regardless of the name they choose for themselves. That is their identity. They can be arrested with it, they can be married with it, they can speak out on public issues with it. They own all of their actions.
In the virtual public square, identity is meaningless unless you are one of the privileged few Twitter rewards with a "verified identity" marker. Those go to celebrities, musicians, brands, and journalists, for the most part. The rest of us either fight to preserve our identity or else live in a world of multiple identities. If you are someone like me, who uses one name and one account and has for nearly six years, it is disturbing to imagine that a mistake in an algorithm could silence my voice. Or yours. Or anyone's. Twitter has created a two-tier social media structure where some have identities, and others don't. As a result, some are not at risk of being silenced while others are.
As we use social media tools to organize and amplify messages on both sides, there should be some system that values identity and accountability. For all the talk about kids being bullied online, there is plenty of conversation to be had about how social media spaces are gamed in order to weight the message toward one side or the other, how lackadaisical attention to identity and online behavior can destroy reputations not only of brands but also people.
But it's like gun control. No one wants to talk about it until there's some horrible consequence. Then we talk for awhile and put it away until the next time something horrible happens. And again. And again.
I am not saying there should be regulation or some kind of law put into place, but social media spaces need to be a little less laissez faire about their self-policing process and identity management services. There's no reason why, for example, that people could not initiate the verification process with Twitter if they so desired. If someone chooses to do that and open an pathway of accountability, they should be excluded from the algorithm abuse that targets people who aren't spammers, but simply say things someone doesn't like. Bear in mind that when I use the term "identity", I am not referring to someone's real name. Just like anywhere else, a name will do. One used and associated with the voice.
People like Todd Kincannon and Chris Loesch should be free to be jerks in public. I can't stand either one of them, I know they're jerks, but I don't want to suppress their right to be jerks. People like the anonymous wingnut spamming Twitter daily with personal, private information and promises to "take [insert name here] down" should not be free to do such things. And for those of us willing to prove our identity, we should be able to do that and be free of the risk of being caught in the flaws of machine-shaped acceptable speech.
Instead, we have free-speech advocates like Kincannon calling forth his brigade of Breitbots for spamblocks of "Twitter Gulag" workers. It's almost too predictable. Online or off, in Congress and in the public square, the right wing thinks they own the first amendment right alongside the second.
That's inevitable, but those who create these spaces would do well not to enable it.
Update: Twitter has reinstated the two NRA parody accounts, with the threat of complete elimination if there's any more "misbehavior." Of course, they fail to note there was no misbehavior leading up to the suspension.