How Liberal Approaches To Free Speech Protect White Supremacists Online and In Person

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Written by Devyn Springer

“In order to maintain a safe environment for users on Twitter, we may suspend accounts that violate the Twitter Rules” is what Twitter’s Support website states on account suspension. The social media corporation’s rules state that it will suspend accounts based on spam, account security, and abusive tweets or behavior. This sounds decidedly straightforward and simple to navigate within, however once you find yourself on the wrong side of account suspension, when all of the followers, accounts you’ve followed, messages, tweets, threads, and other data you’ve amassed over years on the site are lost, you quickly realize that the overarching and universal nature of Twitter’s rules caters to bigotry and outright hate. And on deeper exploration, one can realize that this universal, absolutist nature of Twitter’s rules mirrors and often even fuels similar laws and policies surrounding free speech which fuel white supremacist speech and actions in person.

Over the past year a seemingly increasing amount of people I know, particularly people of color, have had their Twitter accounts suspended or temporarily locked. Time after time, I’ve watched people who fit into the parameters of person of color, activist, and leftist have their accounts halted for alleged “hate speech” or “targeted harassment.” What is egregiously, glaringly obvious in these situations is the certainty that social media policies, much like laws, that are built on notions of universality and neutrality will always harm marginalized people, even when that is claimed to not be the intent.

Twitter states in its rules that users may not “promote violence” or harm against others based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” On a surface level this seems to be a morally upstanding and progressive position, but upon digging deeper you realize that this rhetoric leaves a large vacuum for misinterpretation and protection of bigots. While Twitter takes the time to state they do not accept promoting violence against previously mentioned identities, they do not outright state that racist, xenophobic, anti-trans/queer, sexist, anti-islam, or ableist language/actions are not allowed. This means that the statement is incomplete; you can state that you do not allow race-based discrimination without mentioning racism, thus allowing for white people to claim abuse equal to that which non-white people face; you can state that gender-based discrimination or hate is not allowed while not mentioning the word ‘transmisogyny,’ thus allowing cisgender men to claim abuse equal to that which trans women face, and so on. Moreover, they state that user are not allowed to “threaten or promote terrorism,” and again fail to describe any specificity to such a statement.

What then takes place because of the absolute nature of these policies is a dangerous equalization of the tweets, speech, and actions of white supremacists and racists with those of oppressed individuals. In many instances, people of color and other oppressed individuals have their accounts suspended for defending themselves against and responding to racists online. For example, I recently became a victim of this when I defended myself against white users who, quite literally, were advocating for violence against me. I tweeted in support of a local Atlanta gym, EAV Barbell Club, which announced it would operate as a cop-free space, and within an hour I had dozens of racists in my mentions insinuating and outright insisting on violence against me. After several hours of this abuse, with myself and several of my followers reporting this abuse to Twitter with no avail, I decided to respond to some of the trolls who wanted to insinuate violence against me and my account was subsequently temporarily locked. Specifically, I told one twitter user who insisted they wanted to fight me that they should ‘be careful because I know how to find your information to share it with my followers.’ Of course, I did not actually share the user’s information with my followers, I only made the threat in the hope that them and several others would stop sending me death threats, however I received an email shortly after I sent the tweet stating I was ‘in violation of the Twitter Rules,’ and that I would not be allowed to tweet, retweet, follow, like, or reply to any tweets for 24 hours.

This event and similar stories from Twitter users of color like @_hoemo, whose account was permanently suspended for responding to violent racist and anti-gay, exposes the ways in which Twitter’s absolutist positioning often protects and caters to racists, bigots, and even users who are proud Nazis/Nazi-sympathizers. When this event happened it shook me to the trauma of neutrality that I have grown familiar to as a Black queer Muslim existing in a space of hypervisibility. Another Twitter user, Pooja (@poojaxlays), described to me what happened when a tweet of hers critiquing both Hillary Clinton and American went viral last year, which cause her mentions to fill with both conservatives and liberals upset with her exuding immense racism and violence towards her. “I remember this one particular comment that I responded to, it was from some Republican,” says Pooja. “They compared my skin to mud because I’m brown, and then they said kids in India ‘shit on the streets’ and are ‘homeless.’”

The hate continued for almost the entire day, notes Pooja, saying that several users she reported were telling her she “should be grateful to be in America” although she lives in the Caribbean and has never visited America, and said she was shocked that several users were allowed to send her pictures, memes, and threats that called upon Nazism/Holocaust imagery without . The story follows the growing pattern that feels common now: she responded to the hate and within 24 hours her account was permanently suspended. In instances like this, several of the hateful tweets from racists are reported to Twitter and their support team often does not find them to be in violation of their rules, however when the racists report users like Pooja’s defensive tweets our accounts are almost immediately suspended or locked. This shows that, on an integral level, Twitter sees the violent tweets of racists as equal to those of us who must defend ourselves, and often values the protection of their accounts more than ours.

This problematic equalization is a digital extension of laws and policies which affect our lives in person as well. Recently, people were divided and debating around the news of the ACLU’s decision to defend the right of white supremacists to publicly rally in Charlottesville. Invoking the language of ‘free speech’ the ACLU, a massively influential nonprofit legal organization which aims to defend civil liberties, took to court to defend the white supremacists rights to hold the public demonstration that killed Heather Heyer, was responsible for the brutal beating of Deandre Harris, threatened the lives of peaceful leaders like Cornell West, and left several more injured.

While the debate around the ACLU’s defending of racist’s free speech is certainly a heated debate, with writers like Glenn Greenwald taking the time to write long-winded defenses of the ACLU’s choices, one thing has been missed in much of the rhetoric: the need for public law to openly and concisely condemn white racism, Nazism, fascism, and Confederate apologia. Defenders of absolutist free speech laws often refer to the mostly-true notion that if we are to allow the state to censor the speech of hate groups, we will then make way for them to censor the speech of marginalized communities. This statement is only partially true, because it lacks nuance in several factors.

The first is the most obvious: the state already does widely censor and monitor the speech of marginalized communities in various ways. The most obvious example is the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program, which was reported by the ACLU itself, that was deeply integrated into the spying of Muslim leaders, communities members, mosques, and communities through the New York City and “every mosque within 100 miles of New York, and extended to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, and more.” This surveillance in itself is just the most public example of a nationwide phenomena, and the fear it creates, as noted by the ACLU, has heavily stippled notions of free speech for Muslims terrified by the prevalent surveillance. Of course, we are also aware that anti-Black surveillance and censorship of speech is not a thing of the past that died with COINTELPRO, and police departments disguise these actions as “counterterrorism units” in several cities. Similarly, we can draw on examples from the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly protesters like the stepfather of Michael Brown who was investigated, arrested, and charged by Ferguson police for “inciting a riot” after shouting “fuck the police” and “burn this motherfucker down” while protesting the non-indictment of the officer who murdered his stepson. And again, in just a few months ago Berkeley professor Yvette Felcara was arrested on charges of “inciting a riot” after defending herself against white nationalists and stating the Nazis need to “get the fuck off our streets.” In Felcara’s case, claims of both “free speech” and self-defense have not protected her, and in the case of Michael Brown’s stepfather the protection of his speech is also nonexistent. So statements of censorship and monitoring by the state are true, yet we cannot pretend like they do not already exist.

If state censorship, or suppression, of free speech already exists in various forms, we then have to shift our rhetoric from discussing possibilities of theoretical suppression, as Glenn Greenwald does, and instead examine current material realities. Absolutist free speech laws aid white supremacists in the same way ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws do, such as the one that aided in George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of TrayVon Martin, in which white-on-black shootings are found justified just over 9 percent of the time. On some essential level, all free speech laws, much like Stand Your Ground laws, are designed to protect people but these laws devoid of concise anti-racist, anti-fascist specificity built upon sociologically sound definitions of the two are vulnerable to manipulation and justification of white supremacist action. Assuming that the state censoring or denying free speech as an absolute, objective bad occurrence nullifies the duty of the state in protecting its citizens. Of course as a Black person I am aware the state often fails to do so, but we can look to Germany, for example, where very specific language from state mandates bans Neo-Nazism, along with Holocaust denial via the German Criminal Code. Or in South Africa where local municipalities have power over censorship and, in several cases, Apartheid denial/apologism is deemed legal ground for firing or investigation. How does this translate into the free speech debate in the US? It means that we, too, could implement language, ideological-specific laws and policies surrounding denial of free speech to reverence of this country’s horrendous Confederate past, as well as specific anti Neo-Nazism, fascism, and white nationalist language coded into laws and policies. It does not mean that Germany or any other country with speech laws perceptive of sociopolitical contexts are perfect, but it does mean they are far ahead of our current dominant policies.

As writer Noah Berlatsky states in a recent piece for Quartz on the same topic, “a supposedly color-blind approach to free speech just ends up reinforcing the status quo — whereby the state default is to arrest non-violent black people and lets violent white people walk free.” Similarly, I posit that color-blind, non-contextual or language-specific approaches to social media censoring by corporations like Twitter allows for the same consequential racial disparity. By perpetuating absolutist notions of free speech, it inherently positions hate speech by white supremacists as equal to or extremely similar to the speech and actions of marginalized communities. Whereas one might be inclined to see online censorship as separate from the laws and policies of real life interactions, we must begin to see the ways they feed off of one another and create a persistent silencing of marginalized voices.

Student and Palestinian-American activist Samer Hato came under attack from his university last year, when his tweets condemning Zionism and US imperialism went viral and several people then tried to get him suspended from his university. He says that several of his tweets and Facebook posts regarding Israel have been taken down by moderators, or have caused his accounts to get suspended, and in this incident when tweets of his were sent to his university free speech did not protect him. “Student activists are often punished both online and by their universities for make controversial but factual statements.” He also notes that his online statements in support of BDS are often the ones taken down from social media platforms and flagged as harmful, noting this as a protection of Israeli violence on behalf of digital corporations.

The final question is on the role of the social media corporation. Several have argued that social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook are not responsible for censoring white supremacists, and therefore not culpable for their role in allowing them a platform, similar to Greenwald’s positioning of the ACLU as not accountable for the death of Heather Heyer and the events that took place in Charlottesville. This is, again, false, because it lacks even the most basic of context surrounding the ways digital white supremacy manifests into actualized violence against marginalized people. If you recall, Dylann Roof claimed to be radicalized by Google searches which led him to racist YouTube videos delivering white nationalist propaganda, Rhodesia-forged genocidal rhetoric, and home grown American terrorism. Are Google and YouTube responsible, or at least partially accountable, for readily delivering these links, images, and videos to Roof’s hands? When considering the vast amount of users and content using these platforms, the answer is that they are not fully responsible, but when you consider the amount of openly racist websites and users Google/Twitter/YouTube host, and the ways in which their suspension services constantly work against marginalized individuals while openly racist individuals are given blue verification check, then yes, they are partially accountable.

We must begin to demand tech firms and social media corporations that host extremely racist publications like Breitbart News, which is verified on Twitter, the American Nazi Party, or folks like Richard Spencer, Ann Coulter and the magnitudes of users who are open neo-nazis and white nationalists, begin to implement rules that weed them out. When digital censorship policies unevenly target marginalized individuals through a dangerous equalizing of rhetoric, while simultaneously existing as an organizing space for the self-proclaimed ‘alt-right,’ it leads us into debates and circumstances of repletion surrounding free speech in real life. And one portion of that surely should not be ignored: how social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become actual organizing spaces for white supremacists under the guise of ‘alt-right.’ Events like rallies and marches which aim to promote racism and sexism are often circulated through social media platforms, one example being the infamous lecture series white supremacist asshole Milo Yiannopoulos took place in last year across several university campuses which was almost completely organized and marketed through social media outlets. Yiannopoulos’ events aimed to cause direct harm to marginalized people, attempting to out undocumented students on campuses, perpetuate false racial science rooted in eugenics, and much more, yet the virality of his social media advertising went on for far too long before Twitter finally suspended his account. And aside from him, numerous Confederate, Neo-Nazi, alt-right, and openly white supremacy events exist and are circulated on Facebook, and promoted through Twitter. We know the power that social media lends to organizing movements through examples in the Movement for Black Lives, or the Standing Rock movement, which have both successfully rallied thousands across the world for their cause and in many cases created concrete changes. We know that the continual allowance of white supremacist organizing will only become continually dangerous, and this black-and-white approach to notions of ‘free speech’ online will only spill from online emboldening to in-person protection and congregation.

As Kate Klonick stated in an article last year, “the sooner we start thinking of online speech not only in terms of “free speech” but in terms of responsible and responsive platform governance, the sooner we create the internet we want.” In other words, social media platforms don’t necessarily need to have a dedication to just upholding free speech, but they also have need to reflect the societal norms of responsibility in what they allow. And holding Twitter’s interactions simply on a principle of “free speech,” as Klonick puts it, “misses so much of the picture.” Twitter has not only mounted its platform on the notion of free speech; it has built a corporate ideology around it. Even former Twitter employees told BuzzFeed News, “what was once lauded as a virtue has now become the company’s Achilles’ heel — it’s the axis around which all this shit with harassment rotates,” and referred to its free speech ideology as a “honeypot for assholes.” As this online free speech ideology becomes an obvious ‘Achilles heel’ for Twitter, it is a function of liberalism which powers and emboldens white supremacists in person. It is rooted in the same aforementioned ideology which equates the speech and actions of oppressors to that of the oppressed. This notion of valuing “free speech” in an absolutist manner, which positions free speech as hierarchically superior to protection of people of color, erases the need for laws to mirror the sentiments of responsibility over absolutism. As this absolutist free speech continues to progress, and the “both sides” rhetoric continues to equate the left with the right, one thing remains clear: it is those of us who are marginalized that are stuck in the middle receiving the brunt end of things.

And while Antifa action certainly helps save lives, as Cornel West stated they “would have been crushed” without their action against the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Antifa’s biggest challenge are the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists of social media that they cannot punch in the face. In fact, a marginalized individual stating they want to punch a Nazi in the face, a statement which certainly seems to be objectively good, is grounds to get your account suspended on Twitter. And if absolutist policies and laws on digital speech and in-real-life free speech means equating the defensive actions and words of those who want to punch Nazis with the Nazis themselves, who exactly are they helping? With new social media services like Mastodon rising and deeming themselves as “Nazi-free zones,” it is only a matter of time before Twitter’s horrendous practice of protecting the platforms of white supremacists, hinged on liberal notions of absolutist free speech, causes it to collapse on itself. And in the most laughably accurate conclusion to this article possible, I want to point to the fact that Donald Trump has used the Twitter platform several times to threaten nuclear war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, yet my tweets along with the tweets of other activists were found in violation of Twitter’s rules. Go figure.