Given the endless polemical fights right-wing talk-show host Jesse Kelly gleefully picks online, one can imagine any number of reasons liberals on Twitter may have found to be offended by him. Among his recent tweets, he defended Confederate soldiers, agreed that climate change is a plot by “cultural Marxists” and likened “Drag Queen Storytime” at a Boulder, Colo., library to a baby-sitting session with Caligula.
But when Twitter notified Kelly on Sunday that he had been “permanently banned,” it did not reveal which of his tweets led to his ouster, or for what reason. All it told Kelly was that he had committed “multiple or repeat violations of the Twitter Rules,” which ban such things as abusive behavior, hateful conduct, copyright infringement and targeted harassment. (The company spells these out in multiple pages’ worth of text online.) It added, “This account will not be restored.”
Two days later, it was. But by that time the damage to Twitter had been done, at least in the minds of Kelly’s supporters — and even some of his critics — on the right. The sudden and unexplained banning had given conservatives yet more fuel for their grievance against the liberal bias they perceive in Silicon Valley.
It’s a drum they’ve been beating for two years, as the rise of fake news, white supremacy and other abuses online led Facebook and other platform operators to step up efforts to police their users — a crackdown conservatives say has been tilted heavily against them. The Kelly episode prompted Republican lawmakers to call for a congressional investigation, and some conservatives accused Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey of lying to Congress when he was summoned to Washington to testify about censorship this year.
Granted, the Republican critiques of blue state-based tech platforms would be more credible if leading party figures hadn’t tried to capitalize on them to rally the GOP base and raise funds in the lead-up to the midterm elections. It’s also jarring to watch the two parties reverse roles, with conservatives playing the victim card and warning ominously about overly powerful corporate giants while liberals defend the right of private-sector companies to run their businesses as they see fit.
Yet the stakes here are very, very high. The targets of conservatives’ ire — Twitter, Facebook and Google — have become both the virtual public square and the means by which the vast majority of people find information about it. The companies ought to ensure that these resources are available to everyone regardless of their viewpoint, because the hurly burly of ideas helps civilization advance.
At the same time, the government shouldn’t be telling the companies how to police their platforms against offensive or objectionable content. Congress has encouraged them to take a hands-off approach by shielding them from any kind of liability for what their users post, making it possible for the likes of Twitter and Facebook to provide a relatively open forum. But ultimately, the companies get to decide what kinds of speech they don’t want to provide a megaphone for, because it’s their brands and capital that are at risk. And if they don’t provide the service that users want, that same liability shield will help rival platforms emerge.
In their aggravation with the tech giants, some conservatives have suggested weakening that liability protection or imposing some form of government regulation. That would be a terrible outcome. Yet Twitter’s vague and antiseptic response to the complaints — its official line is that “the Twitter Rules are enforced judiciously and dispassionately, and not based on ideology” — is ineffectual.
Twitter declines to go into detail about its enforcement actions because of concerns about its users’ privacy. Yet its enforcement actions against Kelly and other high-profile users have been so opaque — and its procedures so lacking in anything approaching due process — that the public has been left guessing about the backstory. Its critics, meanwhile, have filled in the blanks by suggesting the company’s methods and motives are discriminatory.
Having attained dominance in its field long ago, Twitter has to adopt a far more transparent approach to the way it enforces its rules. And the concerns about user privacy seem overwrought. If a user tweets something that crosses the line, there’s no reason to keep secret the exact nature of the problem — tweets are public, after all.