In November, facing a wave of criticism for the role it had possibly played in helping to disseminate alt-right rhetoric and sweeping President-elect Donald Trump to victory, Twitter took drastic action. It conducted a site-wide purge of hundreds of accounts apparently belonging to members of the racist, misogynistic, bigoted online arm of white supremacy known as the alt-right.
Saturday, however, Twitter not only reinstated but also re-verified one of the notable alt-right accounts it purged last month.
The account belongs to Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who popularized the term “alt-right” as a controversial name for the group that many believe is meant to obfuscate the racist ideology at the movement’s core. Spencer, who runs a white supremacist “think tank” known as the National Policy Institute, drew attention in November after he hosted a convention in which he “hailed” Trump’s victory to attendees who performed Nazi salutes in response.
On the surface, it would seem that Twitter’s move to reinstate and re-verify Spencer represents a backward step in the site’s longstanding struggle to fight harassment and hateful behavior on the website. Its hateful conduct policy makes its stance on Spencer’s racist ideology clear:
You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.
So reinstating Spencer would seem to be a backing-off of that claim — that is, if we assume that espousing racism is why Spencer was banned to begin with.
According to Twitter, however, it wasn’t.
Twitter banned Spencer for having too many accounts — not for the content of those accounts
A Twitter spokesperson told Vox that Spencer was suspended not for hate speech or for inciting harm, but for having too many accounts: “Our rules explicitly prohibit creating multiple accounts with overlapping uses. When we temporarily suspend multiple accounts for this violation, the account owner can designate one account for reinstatement."
In other words, Twitter suspended Spencer’s account because he had too many accounts that all espoused his alt-right rhetoric. Twitter has provided to Vox a copy of the email it sent to Spencer about his reinstatement, in which it gave him the option to pick one account, and one only:
As referenced in our November 18, 2016 communication, creating serial and/or multiple accounts with overlapping use is a violation of the Twitter Rules (https://twitter.com/rules).
Please select one account for restoration; the others will remain suspended. This account will need to comply fully with the Twitter Rules (https://twitter.com/rules). Please reply to this email with the username of the account you would like reinstated and we will make sure to answer your request in a timely manner.
The Twitter spokesperson confirmed to Vox that Spencer had chosen his primary account for reinstatement. Despite Twitter clearly forcing him to choose only one account to publish from, Spencer, once reinstated, promptly began telling his followers that his other accounts would soon be back up, as well.
@verticalpush— Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) December 11, 2016
I worked on getting my personal reinstated first. Next will be Radix, NPI, _AltRight_, and WSP.
However, given Twitter’s policy, it seems that Spencer’s other alt-right accounts are unlikely to return.
Twitter’s stance on the alt-right seems to be one of conflict
Twitter purged Spencer's account several weeks ago, just as it simultaneously rolled out increased harassment tools and a reaffirmed commitment to its “hateful conduct” policy. Even though Spencer may not have been suspended because of that reaffirmed commitment, his banning was seen by many on all sides of the internet’s ongoing culture war as a sign: Spencer himself called it “corporate Stalinism.”
In fact, Spencer’s banning spent many alt-right Twitter users running to the new alt-right-friendly free speech zone Gab.ai, a social media platform whose CEO expresses alt-right views. (A Gab spokesperson informed Vox in November that Gab is a “free speech website and nothing more ... open to all users, regardless of their political beliefs, ideology and moral views.”) With the news of Spencer’s reinstatement, many on Gab have been questioning whether Twitter is backing down on its previous alt-right crackdown.
Even though Twitter banned Spencer over his multiple accounts, it’s hard not to see his re-verification as an odd step backward — however, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed to Vox that Spencer had already been verified before his account was suspended; the reinstatement of his account merely restored his verification checkmark. Verification on Twitter is a way of confirming a user’s identity, but it’s also culturally seen across the site as a major status symbol — a mark of importance. The choice to allow Spencer’s one account to remain verified makes sense given that he was banned for having too many at once. But in the context of verification as a status symbol, seeing the verification checkmark next to Spencer’s name reads much differently.
It’s especially confusing given the clause of Twitter’s hateful conduct policy that states that the site does not allow “accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of [race, ethnicity, national origin, etc.]" Spencer's Twitter account is very obviously dedicated to promoting the cause of the alt-right and bolstering his public identity as a white supremacist leader. White supremacy is explicitly about inciting harm toward others on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, etc., by denying them equal rights; as the New York Times put it, "White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy."
Given that racial discrimination causes harm to those being discriminated against, it’s difficult to understand how Spencer’s account, which is dedicated to promoting the alt-right’s cause, isn’t the embodiment of an account whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others on the basis of race. Of course, we now know that Twitter didn’t ban him for that reason to begin with — which raises the question of to what extent Twitter intends to enforce the “hateful conduct” policy.
The reinstatement of Spencer’s account comes at a time when Trump’s own behavior on Twitter may be inciting harm to his targets
There’s another Twitter user whose behavior on the social platform has drawn controversy: the president-elect himself. Trump's pattern of targeting victims who then face an onslaught of violent real-life threats and harassment from his supporters mirrors behavior for which Twitter has previously banned members of the alt-right. Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey commented to Recode editor Kara Swisher that he found Trump's Twitter presence "fascinating" and "interesting" — a sign that his company was unlikely to take similar action against that of the president-elect.
Regardless of why Twitter took action against Spencer, the restoration of his account might well be seen to embolden members of the alt-right on the website. And as we know from Gamergate, the Ghostbusters backlash, and many other racist and misogynistic Twitter-based harassment campaigns, these members are likely to include Twitter users who will actively violate Twitter’s harassment policies.
In other words, it seems to be, yet again, one step forward and one step back for a platform that has struggled to find a balance between protecting free speech and protecting its users from hate.
Update: Also on Saturday, Twitter officially verified the controversial alt-right media blog Breitbart: