Twitter’s Misbegotten Censorship

David Frum, The Atlantic, November 16, 2016

The very last tweet from the now-suspended Twitter account of the alt-right leader Richard B. Spencer was directed at me.

On Tuesday afternoon, I tweeted a link to a BuzzFeed report that Russia’s English-language channel, RT, was testing a new program featuring Katie Hopkins. (Hopkins, for those unfamiliar, is a provocative British media personality, perhaps best known for a TV interview in which she described judging her children’s playmates by whether their given names were posh enough.)

Spencer retorted to my Hopkins tweet: “We’re winning. You’re losing.” My answer remains on my Twitter timeline as a punchline without a setup: “You’d have said that on the afternoon of the Guernica bombing too. Wasn’t true then; isn’t true now.” Minutes after that exchange, Spencer’s account vanished, as did that of his website, as well as nearly a dozen other people associated with Spencer’s brand of racialist politics. All this on a day when Spencer had appeared on NPR and the Daily Show.

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Twitter emerged during the 2016 presidential election as the pre-eminent means by which pro-Trump troll accounts—many of them automated, located outside the United States, often in Russia—disseminated false news and attempted to drive opponents off social media altogether.

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In the case of Richard Spencer, however, there is no evidence of harassment or incitement to harass. The same can be said of most (although not all) of the other accounts suspended on November 15. These suspensions seem motivated entirely by viewpoint, not by behavior.

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Politics remains welcome at Twitter, as its most famous user, the president-elect, can attest. What Twitter is saying is that some and only some speech will be policed, by standards that can only be guessed at in advance.

That’s socially undesirable for a lot of reasons, but consider just this one: It’s precisely the perception of arbitrary and one-sided speech policing that drives so many young men toward radical, illiberal politics. On campus especially, but also in the corporate world—and now on social media—they perceive that wild and wacky things can be said by some people, but not by others. By useful comparison: On the very same day that Twitter suspended the accounts of some alt-right users, DePaul University forbade a scheduled appearance by the broadcaster and writer Ben Shapiro.

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The culture of offense-taking, platform-denying, and heckler-vetoing—now spreading ever outward from the campuses—lets loudmouths and thugs present themselves as heroes of free thought. They do not deserve this opportunity.

It’s a crazy fact of American life that as of today, a neo-Nazi has more right to build an arsenal of weapons and drill a militia than to speak on Twitter. Maybe we should try it the other way around.

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Over the past two decades, Americans have constructed systems of intellectual silencing that stifle the range of debate among responsible and public-spirited people. They’ve resigned hugely important topics to the domain of cranks and haters. If the only people who’ll talk about the risks and costs of a more diverse society are fascists, then the fascists will gain an audience. So long as they refrain from incitement and harassment, the right way to deal with social media’s neo-Nazis is not by taking away their platforms, but by taking away their audiences, by welcoming a more open and more intelligent discussion of what Americans yearn most to hear about.

[Editor’s note: David Frum’s relationship to the Alt Right is every day more complex. See, “David Frum: An Open-Minded Neoconservative?” for more on this.]

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