Is Twitter banning threats or ideas?
This week, Twitter locked, suspended, or terminated the accounts of at least 10 prominent users. All affected accounts, as far as I’m aware, were critical of contemporary society and attacked it from the right. They included a fringe continental philosopher, a YouTube pundit, and six leaders of an influential Twitter clique known as frogtwitter.
Despite journalists breathless attempts to label frogtwitter as neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-democracy, Alt-Right, and “NRx,” it’s in reality just a small group of young, vaguely right-wing intellectuals interested in critiquing Western life. They aren’t all white (not even close), nor are they all American. It has an internal list serve, internal communications, and recognized leaders who offer their critiques through tweets and organize via DMs. It’s not a mass fascist movement, it has nothing to do with Richard Spencer, and most traditional conservatives either hate it or don’t understand it. It’s opposed by an equally intellectual and anti-PC group, the Dirtbag Left, though the two sides often share the same ideas and memes. That is, until one side was banned.
Ideas vs. Threats
When Twitter bans accounts, it doesn’t give the affected user much of an explanation. It doesn’t have to. Twitter isn’t a governmental entity bound by the First Amendment. If it wanted to, it could ban every account displaying the slightest scintilla of right wingishness. It could ban anyone who’s ever tweeted a bad word. It could ban Donald Trump. It could go in the opposite direction and ban anyone who hasn’t tweeted “niggerfaggot” or “I love the ass goblins of Auschwitz” thirteen times in succession. The point is that Twitter can do whatever the fuck it wants.
But should Twitter do whatever the fuck it wants? Twitter doesn’t think so. The Abusive Behavior section of the infamous Twitter Rules begins with the following:
“We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power…”
The day after the election, Twitter CEO (and open anti-Trumpian) Jack Dorsey echoed this sentiment:
Twitter, it would seem, is not interested in tyranny. The rules could very easily begin and end with “We are a for-profit public entity and our fiduciary duty is to our shareholders. Any content that we find could affect shareholder profits may be banned at any time for any reason.” But no. There are principles at play here, principles that that appear to be derived from the First Amendment. (In 1791, United States became one of the first nations in the modern world to adopt the principle of free speech as part of its founding documents, in order to allow truth to be spoken to power.)
However, after invoking “truth to power,” the Twitter rule continues:
“…but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse.”
Free expression is not an ultimate guarantee. Speech that proximately causes harm isn’t about sharing ideas, it’s about making threats. In these cases, the principle of “free expression” won’t, and shouldn’t, save speech from censorship. This is why I can’t yell fire in a movie theater or publish a photo of a woman with a caption that reads “SLUT” (as Gavin McGinnis learned the hard way [at 19:05]) and expect to be protected.
But an idea on its own, no matter how inflammatory, is not a threat. If the marketplace of ideas is to thrive, ideas themselves must never be censored. This is why Nazis can march in Jewish neighborhoods and the Westboro Baptist Church can protest funerals. It’s why I can burn the flag.
The legal phrase for this concept is “content-neutral,” e.g. any restrictions of speech must be “content-neutral” in order to be constitutional. You can restrict the time, place, and manner of expression, but not the ideas therein. Twitter’s rules make a similar distinction. They’re designed to prevent harm and the targeting of specific individuals so that everyone feels free to participate in the marketplace of ideas. Twitter wants to ban threats that restrict speech, not ideas that are speech.
If it wants to stand by its principles, Twitter should thus only restrict speech in ways that are content-neutral, just like the Supreme Court. Once it begins restricting ideas according to their political content, it becomes a hypocrite. It becomes a threat. It morphs into that powerful monster, one that needs a heavy dose of truth before it turns tyrannical.
On Monday, a young man using the Twitter handle Menaquinone4 opened the Twitter app on his phone to discover that he was locked out of his account. This wasn’t all that surprising. The young man’s digital self had, over the past couple of years, become an influential cultural critic or deviously powerful troll, depending on your perspective. His tweets were cutting, controversial bits of commentary on American life—sometimes incredibly insightful and other times incredibly silly—composed of language and ideas usually forbidden by the MSM.
A day earlier, Menaquinone had been retweeted by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, possessor of 1.39 million followers and one of only 43 people followed by Donald Trump.
The photo on the right is of an ex-CIA agent named Evan McMullin who ran as an Independent against Trump and Clinton in the 2016 election. The photo on the left is a stock photo of a badass spy. The subtext is that McMullin was actually a CIA plant sent to take down Trump, but he was such a loser that the mission failed completely. This critique, that a once powerful establishment has been taken over by incompetent degraded “bugmen,” appears frequently on frogtwitter.
A kindergarten conspiracy theorist would stop here. Menaquinone’s account was locked because he was right. He nailed McMullin as a CIA plant, and Ann Coulter tweeted it out to her million followers, including Trump, who now all know the truth. The CIA then pressured Twitter to suspend Menaquinone as a dangerous man-wh0-knew-too-much.
Sadly, this is not what happened. Even if it has been taken over by incompetent degraded bugmen, the CIA isn’t that dumb. What actually happened is much more banal, and perhaps more fucked up for that reason.
Menaquinone Gets Banned For Life
The first step in being permanently banned from Twitter is usually a lock out. You aren’t able to operate your Twitter unless you delete a certain tweet. Indeed, when Menaquinone was locked out after the McMullin tweet, the Twitter app prompted him to delete a specific tweet in order to have his account unlocked. But it was not the McMullin tweet. It was one from almost a year ago.
The tweet is a bit less confusing when put in context. It was originally the final part of a series (read bottom up):
To understand what Menaquinone is saying, here’s a brief lesson in frogtwitter terminology. “kwa” means America. #Blackpill means more or less a bold nihilist. A watcher of professional League of Legends refers to someone so nerdy that they watch other people play video games. Jeff Goldblum is a handsome actor known for playing a badass world-saving Jewish scientist in Independence Day. In the awful 2016 sequel to Independence Day, a young actor portrays a sort of next generation version of the Goldblum character, but without the smart-guy swagger. Instead, he’s a bumbling, harmless beta male fawning over a girl who doesn’t like him back.
At first glance, the tweet appears like an anti-Semitic, homophobic non-thought. Just pure random hate. But dig deeper and…look at that, perhaps a somewhat nuanced observation. Some of Hollywood’s male characters do seem to be weaker, frailer, and less threatening than their earlier counterparts. Think about it. Would Andrew Garfield play a construction worker in 1985? Would John Wayne make it as a leading man today?
Still, Menaquinone acknowledges that this wasn’t one of his better tweets. It wasn’t retweeted thousands of times like some of his other tweets. It certainly wasn’t a hill worth dying on, so he deleted the tweet. Then he waited.
The next morning he received the following email:
A young person found himself on Twitter. He was well-respected for doing something he loved. He had almost 10,000 followers. He was a leader of a culturally important group of young rebellious thinkers (we aren’t used to calling right-leaning thinkers “rebellious” and “culturally important,” but there’s simply no way of denying that that’s what they were). LD50, an art gallery in East London, had recently displayed some of frogtwitter’s best work as an exploration of “Alt-Right, male frustration,” though the show was promptly picketed by an angry mob. His work had even reached the president.
The time he’d spent working on his craft (as ridiculous as that may sound) was for naught. He was done. Twitter bans are technically permanent—it’s against the rules to ban-dodge—which is why another banned right winger, Milo Yiannopolous, can’t simply make a new account. But unlike Milo, Mena had remained anonymous (for self-preservation almost all affiliates of frogtwitter stay anonymous). He hadn’t built up any reputation or social capital as an artist or a critic. Now he’s just Twitter dust in the digital wind.
“It seems silly cause it’s just twitter but i really put a lot of myself into those tweets for the last year and a half,” Menaquinone wrote to me anonymously (I verified his identity privately). “What upsets me the most is that the twitter archive doesnt contain images, bc a lot of my tweets dont make sense without the images in context.”
The loss of his account aside, Mena still had some questions. If it was Coulter’s retweet of the McMullin meme that had drawn Twitter’s attention to him, then why had be been prompted to delete a different tweet from a year ago? Or, if it was the Independence Day tweet that mattered, then why would the final ban email accuse him of posting a violent threat?
“i thought it was most likely due to just notoriety, like it had attracted people to mass report my account, but when that happens, you get repeatedly locked and asked to delete tweets before they finally ban you. before sunday i had never had any tweets flagged for deletion or any interaction with twitter support,” says Mena. “so that could mean mcmullin/a bunch of verified accounts reported it, since twitter does different things when big verified accounts report something.”
But there was something else. When he received the final ban email, Mena looked back at the McMullin tweet. Without realizing what he was doing, he’d lined up the stock photo sniper to look like it was shooting at McMullin.
“you can construe it as a violent threat because the guy on the left has a sniper rifle,” says Mena. “the possibility of that had honestly not even occurred to me until i got that email.”
Still, something didn’t add up. If Twitter was concerned that the McMullin tweet was a violent threat, why hadn’t it simply prompted Menaquinone to delete that tweet, instead of a random one from a year ago?
“it’s also possible that twitter decided that a tweet openly mocking the cia/’deep state’ from an account with a 9/11 pepe avatar and the unabomber manifesto in the bio showing up on the president’s timeline was a bad look for the company.”
To me, this seems like the most likely scenario. Menaquinone4 wasn’t banned for the manner of his speech, he was banned for its content.
Non Content-Neutral Enforcement
If Twitter suspended accounts in a content-neutral fashion, what happened to Menaquinone might be fair. If all perceived threats, even accidental ones, that received a certain amount of reports led to bans, perhaps there would be no story here. If six of Menaquinone’s frogtwitter cohorts, @BronzeAgePerv, @YAHBOYFROGEYMTL, @KeldoryThePious, @neo_bugman, @studcarmichael, and @og_nagual, hadn’t also been suspended or locked out the same week, perhaps Twitter would appear like the truth-to-power promoting platform it holds itself out to be.
To my knowledge, no prominent liberal/left-leaning cultural critic or personality has ever been permanently banned from Twitter (I’m open to being shown I’m wrong about that, btw). And that’s not because liberal commenters don’t make threats, use slurs, or harass individuals. Here’s just a few examples. These accounts are all still active, despite receiving flurries of media attention and presumably many abuse reports.
Some liberals have openly supported Sharia Law. You know, the one that requires physical punishment for homosexuality.
Rapper Azalea Banks (who supported Trump, but also tweets things like “whiteness is a mental disease” with relative frequency), is known for her homophobic and racist rants. Her account was suspended last year after the following tirade, but popped up again shortly (an apparent illegal ban-dodge) and seems to continue operating with impunity.
“Trying to make myself known but I’m still known as the token sand nigga from 1D” https://t.co/iHaStz4SqQ
— BRUJA DEL BLOQUE (@AZEALIABANKS) May 10, 2016
LOL @ZAYNMALIK IS A FAGGOT
— BRUJA DEL BLOQUE (@AZEALIABANKS) May 10, 2016
YUNG RAPUNXEL ALWAYS WINS PUNJABI!! pic.twitter.com/vK4jkSxcoo
— BRUJA DEL BLOQUE (@AZEALIABANKS) May 10, 2016
My point is not that any of these accounts should be banned. I don’t think they should be. Rather, what I want to know is why frogtwitter’s esoteric right-wing cultural commentary is so much more threatening than what’s coming from the left. Or, for that matter, from the far right. Openly white-supremacist Richard Spencer still has an active account and sports a verification sticker.
The argument for banning radical right wing speech is based in history. If we could strangle baby Hitler in his crib, wouldn’t we? As one of my staunchest liberal friends puts it, sometimes you have to use fascism to stamp out fascism. Since WWII, anything smelling of Nazi-ism must be smitten immediately.
But is frogtwitter actually a fascist threat? As Menaquinone alludes to in a tweet, frogtwitter’s ideology mixes “techno-fascist futurism” with “anti-industrial primitivism.” It’s a quite complex set of beliefs, few of which would be considered “fascist” in the contemporary sense. frogtwitter loves taboo ideas, and worships Michel Houellebecq. It’s obsessed with primitive, pre-industrial cultures (Menaquinone’s last profile described him as a Khoisian Nationalist) free from the computer/debt slavery that comes with being an American in 2017. They put a premium on physical fitness, semi-ironic lifting and gym talk are common. Simultaneously, they’re deeply entrenched in the worlds of video games and 4chan, sometimes finding liberation in technology. Menaquinone told me that frogtwitter is “an e-brotherhood/death cult/rapidly evolving collective thought-space that we all have outsourced part of our consciousness to.” frogtwitter yearns for both the future and the past.
In terms of historical analogs, frogtwitter recalls a right wing version of the Situationists. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (referred to by Menaquinone in at least one tweet) laments the industrialized world for removing us from reality and forcing us to engage with a projection instead. frogtwitter echoes the uncompromising fury of Debord. Like the Situationists, the Frogs are much better at critiquing society than they are at offering concrete solutions.
As right-leaning intellectuals, there’s also parallels to the Italian Futurists, and I could definitely see frogtwitter etching its manifesto in steel. Italian Futurism did advocate for violence and domination, and it ultimately led to Mussolini and Italian Fascism. frogtwitter’s Futurist tendencies are perhaps what scares Twitter so badly, and perhaps the Baby-Hitler-strangling idea isn’t entirely unjustified.
However, to morally support a “fighting fire with fire” approach to censorship, you better be sure you’re actually dealing with fire. And no one that I spoke to that’s familiar with frogtwitter believes that it’s actually fire, or actually fascist, or actually abusive. Rather, it’s respected amongst fringe intellectuals, both left and right, and Menaquinone has many fans amongst the more radical elite. Neoliberal pundit Sam Bowman said that, to his knowledge, Mena had never been violent and that “he seems to have been banned for holding the wrong views.” Robert Mariani, an editor of The Daily Caller, said that Mena “did not seem abusive. He never really @’d people. It was just mostly jokes about nobody in particular.”
Politics-agnostic cult sex author and tabooist Delicious Tacos sees Mena’s ban as a tragedy. “He’s not political. He’s someone who clearly senses that there’s something wrong with society and expresses that with humor and seriousness, employing surrealism and other tactics like Lovecraft and Houellebecq,” says Delicious Tacos. “It’s not abuse. Twitter wants to ban all of these people, and they’re looking for any excuse.”
Indeed, some of Menaquinone’s tweets are brilliant, reference-laced illustrations of how times have changed. They evoke the depressing banality of contemporary American life.
As a natural contrarian with a keen eye towards what’s acceptable and what isn’t, he often flipped so-called “cool” things on their head:
He was also militantly pro-environment:
While he definitely used taboo words, and said things that could be construed as racist/sexist, like most great comedians he was an equal opportunity critic:
When he referred to himself and the rest of frogtwitter as neo-Nazis or fascists, he was being tongue-in-cheek in a “I am whatever you say I am” sort of way…
…though he was at times incredibly subversive:
While some of these read as inflammatory to me, they don’t read as threatening to anyone or anything besides boredom. They read as interesting ideas or smart jokes. As the builder of one of our primary public fora, Twitter should be worried about real threats, not ideas. It should at all times stay content-neutral. All its censorship actions should be taken in the name of increasing free discourse. How does banning Menaquinone and the rest of frogtwitter achieve a broader, freer marketplace of ideas? Has anyone fled the platform because of Menaquinone’s tweets? That seems very unlikely to me.
The problem with Twitter’s content-based censorship is that it proves to people who don’t trust mainstream institutions that mainstream institutions shouldn’t be trusted. A Sam Hyde skit makes fun of Jewish executives controlling the comedy world, then Sam Hyde is kicked off the air. Does that really reduce anti-semitism, or does it make it worse? Menaquinone tweets that the deep state is fighting Trump, and then he’s banned from Twitter. Does that really reduce the amount of vitriol and fury, or does it increase it? The censorship of ideas, no matter how crazy the ideas are, usually has the opposite of the intended effect. It’s not baby Hitler you’re strangling, but baby Hydra. For every Menaquinone or Sam Hyde censored, eight more are born.
A Future for Futurists?
What will frogtwitter do now that it has lost its heads? Some sources have suggested that, as left-leaning mainstream platforms like Twitter ban more and more right wing accounts, more neutral (or more right wing) platforms like gab.ai will replace them. However, in the short run, Menaquinone says he’s not interested in gab.ai, and that perhaps it’s time for a break.
“well first of all i think it might be good to give my dopamine receptors a rest after a year of being assaulted by notifications from thousands of autists every time i tweeted,” he says.
While Mena takes a break, Twitter will decide whether it wants to be a platform for speaking truth to power, or an element of the power structure itself.