Remember a few days ago, when Twitter elevated anti-GamerGate leader Anita Sarkeesian to its "Trust and Safety Council," an imperious-sounding committee with Robespierre-esque powers to police discussion on the social media platform? The goal, according to Twitter, was to make it easier for users to express themselves freely and safely.
One user who won't be expressing himself at all is Robert Stacy McCain: a conservative journalist, blogger, self-described anti-feminist, and prominent GamerGate figure who was banned from Twitter on Friday night. Clicking on his page redirects to this "account suspended" message that encourages users to re-read Twitter's policies on abusive behavior.
But as with other Twitter suspensions, it's impossible to tell which specific policy McCain is accused of violating, or which of his tweets were flagged as abusive. McCain is an animated and uncompromising opponent of leftist views. His statements are extreme, and I don't often agree with them, but I would be reluctant to label them as abusive (at least the ones I've seen).
In a response to his banning that is in many ways emblematic of his worldview and behavior, McCain explicitly blamed Sarkeesian and her crew:
This is why you can't even state FACTS about these people on Twitter without being accused of "harassment." Facts are harassment and truth is hate and Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia. Sarkesian is anti-freedom because she is anti-truth. She and her little squad of soi-disant "feminists" are just hustlers looking for a free ride, and the only way they can get that ride is to silence anyone who speaks the truth about them and calls them out as the cheap bullshit artists they actually are.
McCain did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He concluded the above post with a statement, "fuck 'social justice'." He despises leftists and feminists, and doesn't hold back his hate.
But there's a difference between using strong language to disagree with people, and abusing them. If McCain has crossed that line, I'm not aware of it.
Twitter is a private company, of course, and if it wants to outlaw strong language, it can. In fact, it's well within its rights to have one set of rules for Robert Stacy McCain, and another set of rules for everyone else. It's allowed to ban McCain for no reason other than its bosses don't like him. If Twitter wants to take a side in the online culture war, it can. It can confiscate Milo Yiannopoulos's blue checkmark. This is not about the First Amendment.
But if that's what Twitter is doing, it's certainly not being honest about it—and its many, many customers who value the ethos of free speech would certainly object. In constructing its Trust and Safety Council, the social media platform explicitly claimed it was trying to strike a balance between allowing free speech and prohibiting harassment and abuse. But its selections for this committee were entirely one-sided—there's not a single uncompromising anti-censorship figure or group on the list. It looks like Twitter gave control of its harassment policy to a bunch of ideologues, and now their enemies are being excluded from the platform.
Banning McCain wasn't even Twitter's only questionable activity last night. It seems that Twitter also suppressed the pro-McCain hashtag subsequently created by his supporters, #FreeStacy. After it started trending, Twitter made it so that the hashtag wouldn't autocomplete when people typed it. "The #FreeStacy tag would be in the US top 10 now, but Twitter has scrubbed it," wrote Popehat's Patrick on Twitter.
Another Popehat author, Ken White, has been skeptical that Twitter's censorship of certain conservative figures is actually coming from a place of malice. In response to Yiannopoulos getting de-verified, he wrote:
Big companies, even when run by ideologues, tend to make decisions like big companies, not like individuals. The decision-making looks less cinematic and more cynical. The focus tends to be on branding, but mostly on money-making, avoidance of unpleasantness, reduction of cost, and ease of use. Twitter's line employees are almost certainly disproportionately liberal, and by assigning command-and-control of individual account decisions to them, the impact is probably that evaluations of abuse complaints will have a liberal bias. Similarly, if you make a corporate decision to police harassment (or at least pretend to), and the people doing the policing have a bias, then the results will have a bias. But that's not the same as a deliberate decision to take sides; it's a cost-driven, practicality-driven decision.
If Twitter wants to go full-on Ministry of Truth, it can. But its user have the right to raise hell about it—to call out the platform for punishing dissident alt-right figures while empowering their adversaries. I'm not convinced that's what's happening, but the exclusion of Robert Stacy McCain—a mere 10 days after the Trust and Safety council came into existence—is cause for concern.