Twitter: Free Speech in 140 Characters

The virtues of pseudonymity in an age of full disclosure


It was a typical Thursday night on Twitter. Mid-December, 6 p.m. Pacific Time. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was riffing on why the GOP should endorse over-the-counter birth control. Jenna Haze, two-time winner of the FAME Dirtiest Girl in Porn award, was posting an Instagrammed photo of storm clouds lit by the setting sun. Whole Foods Markets wanted to let everyone know that groceries make thoughtful Christmas gifts. And the hip hop artist The Game and scores of his fans were jawing at the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin.

Malkin's website Twitchy.com, whose brand of sustainable post-peak journalism feasts on foraged tweets to produce a timely stream of snarky outrage, had published an item about the cover artwork on The Game's new album, Jesus Piece. Even The Game had described this artwork as "controversial." It shows Jesus with a teardrop tattoo on his cheek and a red bandanna covering the lower half of his face, the Lamb of God as gangsta Messiah. 

Twitchy harvested reactions the image had inspired on Twitter—some positive, some negative—and appended a parting shot: "Would The Game dare to do to Allah what he did to Jesus Christ? Just asking, though we already know the answer. Peace out." 

The Game did not peace out. "#BOYCOTT @michellemalkin NOW!," he Tweeted. "She's racist, & makin racial & blasphemist comments about my album. Same b!$&% said Obama isnt AMERICAN RT."

That such charges were baseless did nothing to deter loyal Game fans, who started peppering Malkin with ugly tweets. "fuck that racist Asian looking hoe!" exclaimed one. Another threatened to rape her. A third suggested she needed to be hit in the head with a Louisville Slugger. Malkin, whose career is based on courting confrontation rather than routing around it, struck back quickly, sometimes with sarcasm ("You need TwitterViagra"), sometimes with Biblical verse ("Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.") 

Her fans entered the fray too, and for the next several hours, in an awesome display of Twitter's capacity to inspire unlikely convergence, dozens of disparate individuals, many of them operating under pseudonyms, found common ground in their quest to see how much contempt for one another they could pack into the 140 characters Twitter allots per post.

As the drama unfolded, Twitter did what it generally does in such situations: nothing. Maintaining order on the micro-publishing platform is the responsibility of Twitter's Trust & Safety department, which, despite its Orwellian moniker and intimations of bland bureaucratic intrusiveness, is more free-range parent than helicopter mom. Until a user proactively files a complaint about another user's behavior, Trust & Safety stays on the sidelines. And even when complaints are filed, it often takes no action. 

This strategy appears to be paying off. In a little over a year, Twitter's user base doubled, going from 100 million monthly active users in September 2011 to 200 million monthly active users in December 2012.

Trust & Safety

If you want to talk with a Twitter employee in person, prepare to be vigorously authenticated. In the small, ground-floor entryway of the downtown San Francisco building where the social media company is headquartered, a security guard behind the front desk demands picture ID from all visitors. Once you are matched against a list of expected guests and sign in, you can proceed to the elevator, where another security guard punches in the floor you have been cleared to visit. (The interior of the elevator has no control panel, so it's impossible to reroute your trip on the fly.) The elevator opens onto Twitter's 9th floor lobby, where you sign in one more time and receive a name badge. Then a PR person will emerge to escort you to your designated appointment.

Mine was with Del Harvey, director of Trust & Safety. In October 2008, when Twitter had only a couple dozen employees and approximately 6 million monthly users (according to the market research firm eMarketer), it hired Harvey to head up the standards department. Harvey had a good friend who was an engineer at the company, and when Twitter decided it needed to do something about the increasing number of spam and abuse complaints that were arising with the service's exponential growth, Harvey's friend suggested her for the job. "My friend was like, 'I know somebody who is super, super obsessive-compulsive, she'd be fantastic at this,'?" Harvey recalls. "My interview was like a 20-minute phone call, and then I was hired."

Before joining Twitter, Harvey worked for five years at Perverted-Justice.com, a nonprofit that targets online predators by posing as underage teens in chatrooms. When Harvey joined Twitter, she wasn't just the head of Trust & Safety; she was the entire department. Today she oversees a staff of around three dozen, who monitor the excesses of the estimated 500 million Tweets per day. As the Daily Dot noted in August 2012, when Twitter was averaging 340 million daily tweets, a five-second manual review of each one would "take the equivalent of 35,416 eight-hour shifts." At a half-billion per day, subjecting just 1 percent of Twitter's output to such cursory human discretion would take approximately 868 eight-hour shifts, absorbing the attention of roughly all of Twitter's current staff.

Those impossible figures help explain one of the company's core mantras: "We don't mediate content," Harvey says. "We don't proactively go out and do stuff that frankly wouldn't be scalable." Instead, Twitter simply explains what users can and cannot say and do in the Terms of Service (TOS) and Rules that it posts on the site. Other Internet juggernauts do the same, but what makes Twitter stand out in this field is the extent to which its house rules embrace laissez faire.

Consider, for example, some statements that appear in the user policies of other sites. "You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence," Facebook commands. "Colorful language and imagery is fine, but there's no need for threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, and other displays of bigotry," Yelp says. Flickr "is not a venue for you to harass, abuse, impersonate, or intimidate others. If we receive a valid complaint about your conduct, we'll send you a warning or delete your account."

Twitter, in contrast, governs in much less proscriptive fashion. "All Content, whether publicly posted or privately transmitted, is the sole responsibility of the person who originated such Content," its TOS reads. "We may not monitor or control the Content posted via the Services and, we cannot take responsibility for such Content. Any use or reliance on any Content or materials posted via the Services or obtained by you through the Services is at your own risk." In its Rules section, Twitter reaffirms this hands-off policy: "We do not actively monitor user's content and will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances."

Those limited circumstances mostly involve impersonating other people or disclosing their private and confidential information, committing trademark violations or copyright infringement, and posting "direct, specific threats of violence against others." Harvey elaborates: "You cannot say to a specific person, 'I'm coming over to your house right now with a baseball bat to kill you.'?" 

Twitter's TOS wasn't always so circumscribed. In the spring of 2008, the site was growing rapidly but still radiated a utopian feel. There wasn't a lot of spam yet. There weren't a lot of celebrities yet either—technology pundit Leo Laporte was the most popular figure on Twitter then, with just under 29,000 followers—so there wasn't a lot of vicious heckler venom. 

But of course there were exceptions. In June 2007, a "social-media insights consultant" named Ariel Waldman started receiving disparaging tweets from another user. She reported the tweets to Twitter, but the problem persisted. By May 2008 Waldman was fed up with the company's reluctance to take significant action. In a detailed post on her personal blog, she explained how this person had publicly called her a "crack-whore" and worse, along with tweeting her full name and email address. 

In Waldman's estimation, these tweets clearly violated the TOS Twitter was operating under then, which stated that users "must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate, or intimidate other Twitter users." While Waldman believed her antagonist's tweets qualified as "harassment," she reported on her blog that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had told her in a phone conversation that he felt Twitter's TOS was "up for interpretation." 

In fact, the company eventually decided its TOS was up not just for interpretation but for outright revision. Instead of banning the user that had been targeting Waldman, Twitter eventually rewrote its TOS to clarify its position on the sorts of behavior it would and would not tolerate. 

'The Free Speech Wing of the Free Speech Party'

Changing the rules in the wake of Waldman's complaint wasn't exactly ideal timing from a public relations perspective. As Waldman pointed out in one of her posts on the matter, Twitter's Web 2.0 peers, such as Flickr and Digg, were far more proactive about banning users who engaged in objectionable behavior.

Twitter, on the other hand, seemed content to let users fend for themselves. "Twitter recognizes that it is not skilled at judging content disputes between individuals," company co-founder Biz Stone explained on a message board where people were discussing the matter. "Determining the line between update and insult is not something that Twitter, nor a crowd, would do well."

While this may have been true, it was also true that Twitter could have insisted that users create profiles using their real identities. It could have implemented more rigorous authentication requirements, such as providing a credit card number. Instead it chose a path that seemed to involve the least amount of company effort.

But if Twitter's newly articulated policy failed to protect its users from other users, it also effectively protected users from Twitter itself. Though the company "reserve[s] the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content" and "suspend or terminate users," it constrains its ability to exercise these powers by characterizing itself in the way it does. Indeed, when you proclaim that you're "the free speech wing of the free speech party," as CEO Dick Costolo often does, that creates certain expectations. When you regularly assert that you do not mediate content, users will assume that you do not mediate content, even in cases when that content is highly objectionable.

This doesn't mean Twitter never censors. During the 2012 Summer Olympics, for example, when the company had a partnership deal with NBC, it temporarily suspended the account of the British journalist Guy Adams after he critiqued an NBC executive and tweeted the executive's NBC email address, an alleged violation of Twitter's prohibition against tweeting another user's private information. Because this action contradicted the company's loudly professed values, however, Twitter suffered major fallout in the court of public opinion and acted quickly to make amends, reinstating Adams' account within 48 hours and apologizing to him.

Far more common than incidents like this are ones where the free speech wing of the free speech party gives such free rein to its charges that the neighbors complain. In May 2011, the South Tyneside Council, a municipal government body in the U.K., obtained a court order in California that compelled Twitter to help identify a user known as "Mr. Monkey" who'd been using Twitter to disseminate allegedly libelous material about several members of the council. According to The Guardian, it was "believed to be the first time Twitter has bowed to legal pressure to identify anonymous users." Twitter reportedly disclosed email addresses, mobile phone numbers, and IP addresses associated with the account to the Council's attorneys.

Since then, requests like this have become increasingly common. In 2012, every month brought new high-profile cases of judges, law enforcement agencies, foreign governments, human rights organizations, and private citizens who wanted Twitter to identify users accused of wrongdoing, to delete offensive posts, and to ban objectionable accounts.

Over time, Trust & Safety and Twitter's legal department (which now oversees Trust & Safety) have developed policies that allow Twitter to comply with country-specific free speech laws and yet still put users at the forefront. "Our mission statement within Trust & Safety is to ensure user trust, protect user rights, and craft and enforce policies to reduce legal risk," Harvey says. "And that's legal risk for Twitter and for users."

Thus, when the company receives a court order or subpoena to disclose user information, it alerts the user in question, so that he or she has an opportunity to contest the disclosure before it happens. When local laws compel Twitter to delete posts or ban accounts in a given country, it does so in a narrow, transparent fashion, blocking the material locally rather than globally, and replacing the blocked material with a grayed-out alert box indicating that an act of officially mandated government censorship has taken place. 

And when third parties aren't armed with subpoenas, court orders, or other valid legal processes, Twitter typically does not take action. In September 2012, for example, Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based affiliate of Al Qaeda, tweeted photos showing the corpses of several Kenyan soldiers it took credit for killing in combat. A few weeks later, seven Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the FBI urging it to make Twitter remove Al-Shabaab's account and those of various other "Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities." As of early January, the five accounts the lawmakers complained about continue to function on Twitter. A letter to the FBI, even by influential types on Capitol Hill, does not carry the force of a court order. Twitter was unmoved. 

Dissidents and Dilettantes

In a November 2006 Washington Post column, just a few months after Twitter was launched, Michael Kinsley described the site as "the ultimate in solipsism." A few months later, Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist James Lileks concluded that the platform was "as banal as it [was] addictive," a "useless productivity-destruction mechanism" that he couldn't stop reading. In those early days, even fans of the service were mostly struck by its technologically enforced shallowness.

Perhaps the first person to truly recognize—or at least demonstrate—Twitter's revolutionary power was the actor Ashton Kutcher, who joined the service in early 2009 and, in a matter of months, became its first user to attract more than a million followers. Beating out CNN for that honor in a closely watched battle, Kutcher showed that Twitter was a full-fledged broadcast medium that could push content to huge numbers of people in a single instant, and that you did not need to own a broadcast network to get your message out. A few months later, in Iran, dissidents jumped on the bandwagon, using Twitter to help publicize their efforts to hold their government accountable during a contested election. At one critical juncture, the U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to postpone its scheduled maintenance to ensure that the protesters had uninterrupted access to the outside world.

Iran's dissidents and others throughout the Islamic world demonstrate the flip side of lawmaker complaints about terrorists using Twitter. Enabling pseudonymity gives cover both to bad actors and those trying to evade repressive governments. Forcing disclosure would expose the good guys along with the bad guys. That said, true anonymity is extremely hard to achieve online, and dissidents who are in real danger of retribution should take greater efforts to conceal their identities than a simple Twitter pseudonym. 

Twitter's pseudonymity functions as a liberating force  in far less noble cases as well. For anyone with a more casual interest in maintaining a low profile, Twitter is an oasis in the post-Zuckerbergian world of pervasive disclosure. Sure, it wants to know what you're doing every second, just like Facebook and Google+ do. But while Facebook orders experience around identity, and Google+ really, really wants you to use "the name your friends, family, or coworkers call you" when you sign up, Twitter doesn't blink an eye if you submit a ridiculous alias and a throwaway email address. 

Fifteen years ago, the entire online world pretty much worked like this, and the multiplicity of selves that cyberspace permitted was generally considered a feature rather than a bug. Indeed, it's one reason the early Web was such a liberating place, where kindergarten teachers could freely discuss their passion for medical marijuana without alerting their superiors, or Buffy fans could dissect the latest episode without exposing their digital necks to armies of vampire marketers who would feast on the knowledge for eternity. There are still plenty of places in cyberspace that accommodate anonymity or pseudonymity, but that's less and less true for centralized platforms such as Facebook.

But Twitter is just as mainstream as Facebook, just as central to the culture, and its easy pseudonymity offers a small degree of shelter from the Panopticon. The Geek Feminism Wiki has compiled a list of the various sorts of users who are harmed by a "real names" policy. The list is lengthy, filled with both broad and narrow classes of users, including LGBT people, people with disabilities, stalking victims, ex-convicts, local government whistleblowers, etc. As much as explicit identity engenders accountability, it can also prohibit candor and discourse that would otherwise benefit individuals and the culture at large.

There is, in short, a huge market for pseudonymity, not just in specialized or obscure realms but on mass-market platforms that make it easy to connect instantly with millions of other users. "We're not wedded to pseudonyms," Dick Costolo stated at a Twitter press conference in September 2011. "We're wedded to people being able to use the service how they see fit." But as services like Facebook and Google+ demand increasing degrees of disclosure from their users, the counter-market for platforms that offer more opacity and autonomy will simultaneously expand. Twitter is the pseudonymity wing of the pseudonymity party.

Free Speech: The "Competitive Advantage"

In the summer of 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt intimated that "absolute anonymity" was going the way of floppy disks and answering machines, and that eventually governments would implement some sort of mandatory identity verification program in cyberspace. In July 2011, at a social media round table sponsored by Marie Claire, Randi Zuckerberg, who was then Facebook's marketing director (and is still Mark's sister), exclaimed that "anonymity on the Internet has to go away" in order to promote better user behavior.

Twitter has developed into a major hub for mainstream discourse in large part because millions of people tweet under their real names, including thousands of celebrities and other prominent people whose accounts have been explicitly verified by Twitter. This high degree of disclosure leads to a high degree of trust. Twitter offers substantial opportunities to interact with immediately identifiable people, and that makes it a good place for strengthening real-world social ties and business relationships, and also for keeping track of Donald Trump's latest feuds ("Dummy Graydon Carter doesn't like me too much…great news. He is a real loser!") and what Kim Kardashian thinks of Atlantic City ("Atlantic City!!!!!!").

But as much as Twitter benefits from users who tweet under their real names—especially from verified celebrities—it hasn't seen any need to prohibit fake personas. Its combination of authenticated identity and easy pseudonymity, with no barriers to access between these two very distinct classes of users, is a pretty unique attribute, and potentially quite volatile. Indeed, if you asked the average crazed fan to develop an ideal stalking application, he'd probably come up with something pretty close to Twitter.

Twitter gives its users a great degree of latitude. It lets them determine how explicitly or covertly they want to present themselves. It places comparatively few limits on the types of permissible speech. Some users persistently abuse this tolerance, and others unfortunately pay the price. Eliminating pseudonymity on Twitter would surely reduce its supply of unpleasant discourse, as would taking a more proscriptive stance on what kinds of speech Twitter explicitly prohibits. As Twitter seeks to satisfy the investors who have poured more than $1 billion into the company over the last several years, it might lose its tolerance for corpse-tweeting terrorists in the name of creating a better advertising climate. 

But so far, Twitter's laissez-faire attitude toward online discourse has been its greatest business proposition, so much so that Twitter's chief legal counsel, Alex Macgillivray, told The New York Times that he views Twitter's commitment to free speech as a "competitive advantage." The trust that Twitter places in users creates complications, but it also creates a place for people who appreciate the convenience and efficiency of contemporary social networks but would still like a little bit of the freedom and autonomy that animated the first-generation Web.

In 2012, the privately held Twitter generated an estimated $250–$350 million selling "promoted tweets" to advertisers who are eager to reach the company's millions of users. Those users are drawn to the service in large part because of its relatively unregulated nature. By 2014, industry observers predict, Twitter's ad revenues could top $1 billion a year. But what if those predictions are actually short-changing our appetite for robust, unfettered discourse?

Consider the cultural landscape now. At college campuses across the nation, highly restrictive speech codes are the norm. Anonymous political speech, once the province of our Founding Fathers, is now viewed as a scourge upon the land. An increasing number of states have adopted anti-bullying laws that potentially make it a crime to "torment or embarrass" a person simply for sending them a "lewd" or "obscene" electronic message. Such measures arise out of our expressed desires for more civility, more accountability, more tightly controlled speech zones. And yet every month, the least regulated mainstream communications platform on the planet draws millions of new users. They come for Twitter's immediacy, for its simplicity, and for the way it so easily connects them to The Game and Michelle Malkin. Free speech, it turns out, is popular.