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The alt-right drove feminist writer Lindy West off Twitter. That has real-world political implications.

West says she’s no longer willing to support a site that won’t stop the racist movement from using it as a propaganda tool.

2013 Women's Media Awards - Arrivals Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Prominent feminist and author Lindy West deactivated her Twitter account this week, and she was blunt about why: The social media platform, she alleged in an essay published by the Guardian, has refused to curb harassment carried out by members of the white nationalist, misogynist alt-right movement, thereby contributing to a global political crisis.

West has been targeted by sexist trolls on Twitter for years, and she has confronted them before, but she emphasized in her Guardian essay that she didn’t leave Twitter because all the sexist attacks she’s endured finally wore her down.

“I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt),” she wrote, referring to the alt-right’s use of Pepe the Frog as a racist unofficial mascot (much to its creator’s chagrin).

Rather, her breaking point — what made her feel she could no longer participate in the platform’s “profoundly broken culture” — was that Twitter has failed to acknowledge and deal with the alt-right’s use of the social network to spread its racist ideology, leading to severe, real-world repercussions:

The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now — how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? — and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad,” and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

West’s declaration highlights the uncomfortable fact that Twitter has had years to make changes and reform its harassment and conduct policies, but has instead opted for a tentative, noncommittal, and often contradictory approach. And by failing to stop the rise of the alt-right in its midst, West argues, the site has helped to enable the spread of racist and anti-semitic ideology across the country.

Twitter’s recent behavior is seen by many as acceptance of the alt-right movement and its racist ideology

Twitter isn’t the only website to contribute to the rise of the alt-right. Websites like Reddit, 4chan, and numerous extremist enclaves have all done their part. But Twitter, due to its public-facing infrastructure, its celebrity-friendly culture, and the ease with which its users interact with mainstream media and each other, is the most “public” website members of the alt-right frequent. It’s also the one most notoriously prone to harassment.

That harassment overwhelmingly seems to be racist and sexist, and to frequently originate from Twitter’s alt-right users; for one especially prominent example, look to the headline-making abuse that Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones experienced in 2016.

So West’s assessment of Twitter as a dangerous arena for alt-right radicalization does apply to other websites. But Twitter’s visibility made it a conduit for alt-right ideas to enter the mainstream. And while not all of Twitter’s racist, anti-Semitic, sexist trolls are part of the alt-right or subscribe to its particular white nationalist beliefs, West argues that all of the racist and anti-Semitic trolling and harassment that’s taken place on Twitter did fuel the rise of the alt-right, whether or not the trolls were all explicitly part of the movement.

Twitter’s ongoing approach to dealing with both harassment and the alt-right has been characterized by conflict and confusion. In 2016, for example, while its well-documented harassment problem continued to worsen, the site remained slow to act and sometimes evaded or contradicted its own rules and policies.

In July, Twitter finally banned Breitbart writer and alt-right poster child Milo Yiannopoulos following several temporary suspensions ... but only after he led the aforementioned wave of harassment against Jones.

After the election in November, it launched new anti-harassment tools and internal protocols to help users report abuse, in addition to banning alt-right account holders like neo-Nazi-emboldening white supremacist leader Richard Spencer ... only to reinstate Spencer and bestow a shiny “verified” checkmark on Breitbart’s previously unverified Twitter account a few weeks later.

And all the while, Twitter’s rules and policies were frequently flouted by presidential candidate and now President-elect Donald Trump, whose behavior on the site often fits a pattern of harassment Twitter has banned before.

Many people interpreted these moves as a clear message from Twitter that it was ready to normalize white supremacy. After Trump weaponized the platform, using it to sic his supporters on anyone who spoke out against him, the site’s reinstatement of Spencer sparked widespread concern that Twitter was giving the alt-right an even larger microphone than it gained in the election. But right-wing extremists were delighted. “Jack finally kissed the ring,” exalted one Breitbart supporter.

For West, all of this came to a head in late December, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asked users what changes they wanted to see on Twitter in 2017, then neatly sidestepped one overwhelmingly popular response: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.” As West wrote:

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

In short, Twitter’s refusal to shut down hate speech and right-wing extremism led West to think of the site as equivalent to a local business with damaging affiliations — something she was no longer willing to support. “If my gynaecologist regularly hosted neo-Nazi rallies in the exam room, I would find someone else to swab my cervix,” she wrote.

Twitter isn’t going to ban individual hate groups on the basis of ideology alone.

It’s not like Twitter isn’t trying to deal with the problem. In an email to Vox earlier this week, a Twitter spokesperson pointed out that the site recently banned the formerly verified white supremacist Matthew Heimbach for violating its rules against violent speech, harassment, and other forms of abuse. Twitter has also suspended other known white supremacists, like fringe neo-Nazi Alex Linder, for the same reasons.

Still, West and others (justifiably) maintain that Twitter isn’t trying hard enough. Plenty of other, more prominent white supremacists remain active on the website — including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. In addition to being a famous racist, Duke relentlessly tweets anti-Semitic statements about Jewish people and Israel, along with white supremacist propaganda, including thinly veiled Nazi rhetoric decrying “cultural Marxism.”

Then there’s the official Twitter account of the American Nazi Party.

These accounts have a Twitter presence that clearly and deeply violates the spirit of Twitter’s hateful conduct policy, which “prohibits specific conduct that targets people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” And yet they are allowed to remain.

It appears that Twitter’s rationale for leaving these accounts intact is rooted in two words: “specific conduct.” Alt-right and other racist accounts like Spencer’s and Duke’s regularly spew hatred about entire groups of disenfranchised and marginalized people. But as long as they don’t engage in specific acts of hatred, or target people individually on Twitter, it appears they’ll be allowed to stay.

On the one hand, this is a safeguard that protects Twitter from having to arbitrate a lot of pointless disputes over what constitutes “hate speech”; after all, plenty of people feel that pushback against white male culture is hate speech, a form of racism. They’re wrong, but Twitter probably can’t devote resources to sussing out the difference on the fly.

On the other hand, Twitter is leaving its doors open to a lot of morally reprehensible people. And it sure feels as though there ought to be a way to denote a Twitter account as a bastion of hate-filled vitriol, even if it’s technically obeying the letter of Twitter law. Such a marker would perhaps serve to balance the post-election criticism that Twitter has normalized neo-Nazism by helpfully identifying its presence.

Of course, with President-elect Trump actively using the site the way he does, that possibility seems increasingly unlikely. “Trump uses his Twitter account to set hate mobs on private citizens, attempt to silence journalists who write unfavourably about him, lie to the American people and bulldoze complex diplomatic relationships with other world powers,” West wrote. “I quit Twitter because it feels unconscionable to be a part of it — to generate revenue for it, participate in its profoundly broken culture and lend my name to its legitimacy.”

Ultimately, Twitter’s refusal to ban racist rhetoric may be its undoing

Ironically, Twitter’s November launch of anti-harassment tools and concurrent banning of many alt-right accounts inspired many alt-right Twitter users to leave the site for the white supremacist-friendly, “free speech”–touting social network Gab.

Gab’s logo is an easily identifiable likeness of Pepe the Frog, an image explicitly associated with white supremacy, and Gab’s verified users include known white supremacists. But a Gab spokesperson has stated emphatically to that the platform is “not an alt-right or anti-semitic site” and that it “[does] not represent any one particular political ideology or movement.” The same spokesperson also insisted that Gab’s logo is not Pepe the Frog, but rather “drawn from antediluvian and Biblical sources,” and stated that Gab “rejects the notion that we represent ‘white supremacy’ in any shape or form.”

Be that as it may, white supremacists are blatantly flocking to Gab — Heimbach even promoted the site to the Washington Post after he was banned from Twitter on January 3. In essence, though Twitter has attempted to follow the letter rather than the spirit of its harassment policy, even its cursory efforts have made it unpopular with the very users who are driving progressive voices like West away from the platform.

This mass exodus of hateful trolls may sound like a win for those who are still using Twitter — but many people have already given up waiting for the site to change, and progressive “why I left Twitter” pieces like West’s are becoming increasingly frequent.

A 2017 user exodus would be a bad sign for the already troubled website, which experienced an internal exodus last year amid ongoing struggles to define its business strategy. It’s possible that Twitter, in losing users on both sides of the culture war, will be left with little to show for its apparent interest in courting what some have called Trump’s incumbent “Twitter presidency” — little, that is, except for the unprofitable, dubious distinction of contributing to terrifying political trends.

West’s essay was fueled by the grim realization that Twitter’s refusal to deal with harassment and hate speech at the ideological level has had serious, universal repercussions. Leaving Twitter, she suggests, is one way to deal with the horrifying new phase of world politics that Twitter trolls have helped usher in.

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