How Twitter’s Alt-Right Purge Fell Short

Bob Moser, Rolling Stone, December 19, 2017

The stage had been set for some serious internet drama on Monday. In mid-November, Twitter responded to years of criticism for letting sexual and racial harassment and “hateful” imagery go unchecked—while providing a big, free platform to the alt-right—by rolling out new policies that would be enforced come December 18. While Twitter didn’t say that it was targeting far-right extremists, it didn’t have to: {snip} The new regime sounded pretty darn strict: Even Twitter accounts associated with violence “off-platform,” out in the real world, could be “permanently suspended.”

While the announcement left plenty of room for speculation—for instance, would the President’s platform, @RealDonaldTrump, run afoul of the new Twitter protocols?—the consensus on both left and right was clear: The Great @TwitterPurge was coming, and the days of neo-Nazis and their “alt-lite” enablers red-pilling the masses with their vile ideology were numbered. “Remember, remember, the 18th of December,” the website Mashable gleefully warned the alt-right.

For a month, white nationalists raged against the imminent dying of their 280-character light. “Their new rules will be to gag anybody who stands up for freedom, or stands up for Donald Trump,” Roger Stone (previously banned) told Alex Jones on InfoWars. {snip} On Sunday evening, some signed off Twitter in sad anticipation: “So long nationalist Twitter. I regret nothing,” said anti-immigrant crusader “Virginia Dare” of the hate group VDARE. “If this is the end, farewell friends and comrades.”

{snip} Where Twitter users could previously only complain about individual posts, Twitter would now let “civilians” flag accounts they consider to be in violation of Twitter policy. What happened once those complaints are filed–who decides whether an account is warned, or banned, and why–remained murky. But the rules seemed clear, and potentially devastating for the evangelists of the far right.

But 24 hours later, to its great surprise, VDARE still had its Twitter platform. So did America’s two most famous neo-Nazis, David Duke and Richard Spencer. {snip} Meanwhile, popular alt-lite mavens like Mike Cernovich (“diversity is code for white genocide”), remained free to promote the conspiracy of the day: the thinly sourced rumor that anti-fascists caused the Amtrak train derailment by pouring concrete on the tracks. Many far-right extremists were left wondering aloud why they’d been spared, and sounding a little disappointed. “I have to be the worse Nazi on the planet if I can’t even get permabanned during the great #Twitter Purge,” lamented W.O. Cassity.

{snip} Running tallies were maintained on both the digital left and right, and ultimately included about 20 prominent leaders and groups who seemed to have been selected at random. {snip}

While Twitter’s new actions were designed to “send a message” to neo-Nazis, their seeming randomness only fueled the alt-right’s sense of “white victimhood.” While some of the banned groups certainly fit into the “violent” category, others—like alt-right intellectual guru Jared Taylor and his white-supremacist group, American Renaissance—had been relatively well behaved on Twitter. For some, this was evidence that Twitter wasn’t banning “violence,” but ideas. {snip}

But there was no discernible pattern to be found in Twitter’s first day of trying to make itself, in the company’s words, “a safer place.” {snip}

There was only one important Twitter constituency that found nothing to criticize: Wall Street. In a striking coincidence, news of the crackdown (combined with a bullish report from J.P. Morgan) sent Twitter stock prices “soaring” to a year-long high on Monday, as TechCrunch reported.

{snip} And in the long run, the platform may find that it sold out its single most valuable asset: its long-cherished reputation as a purveyor of free speech. First Amendment expert Susan Benesch, an American University professor and founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, is among those who’ve pointed out the irony of an ideological purge being undertaken by the site that has long hyped itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party.”

{snip}

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