Early Thursday, Twitter temporarily suspended the account of actor Rose McGowan, who has become a major figure in the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal. The resulting backlash from Twitter users was immediate and intense, and illustrates just how contentious Twitter, the corporation, has become for its inconsistency in protecting its users from abuse.
McGowan made an Instagram post early Thursday morning showing what appears to be notification of a temporary 12-hour suspension of her Twitter account for unspecified violations of Twitter’s rules.
“There are powerful forces at work,” she wrote. “Be my army.”
In a widely released press statement issued around noon EST, Twitter clarified that it had suspended McGowan over a personal phone number she had included in a tweet of a screencapped email:
We have been in touch with Ms. McGowan's team. We want to explain that her account was temporarily locked because one of her Tweets included a private phone number, which violates of our Terms of Service. The Tweet was removed and her account has been unlocked. We will be clearer about these policies and decisions in the future.
Twitter is proud to empower and support the voices on our platform, especially those that speak truth to power. We stand with the brave women and men who use Twitter to share their stories, and will work hard every day to improve our processes to protect those voices.
However, by that point many Twitter users had spent half a day being confused and upset on McGowan’s behalf. The suspension followed an intense week for the actress, who has repeatedly used the platform to speak indirectly about her alleged sexual assault at the hands of Weinstein. The recent New York Times report of Weinstein’s alleged decades of sexual assault of women in the entertainment industry identified McGowan as the recipient of a settlement from Weinstein in 1997. Since the report broke last week, McGowan has been very active on Twitter, vehemently declaring that many people in the entertainment industry were aware of Weinstein’s actions yet stayed silent.
@benaffleck “GODDAMNIT! I TOLD HIM TO STOP DOING THAT” you said that to my face. The press conf I was made to go to after assault. You lie.— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) October 10, 2017
Bob Weinstein is a POS. They allllll knew. pic.twitter.com/zWJZf52ywq— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) October 11, 2017
Due to her efforts, McGowan has been praised as a leader in the fight to empower victims of sexual assault.
Because the offending tweet that included the phone number had been deleted, it wasn’t initially clear from McGowan’s Instagram post or a perusal of her Twitter feed which of Twitter’s rules she had violated. McGowan didn’t appear to have threatened anyone, and she wasn’t sharing graphic content or engaging in hate speech or violent speech.
The industry veterans McGowan had been discussing in her tweets, however, are all powerful public figures in Hollywood. This fact, along with the lack of initial clarity about why she was suspended, led to rampant speculation that she was being silenced for being too aggressive about calling out the many men who allegedly stood by while Weinstein continued his pattern of assaults on women for years.
The result was a sense of deep outrage and confusion among Twitter users Thursday morning.
Even after Twitter’s official reason became known, the user base wasn’t having it.
Some alt-right dickbag tweeted my phone number last winter, and when I reported it Twitter denied it was a violation of terms of service https://t.co/Imb5XmJpnC— Natalie Shure (@nataliesurely) October 12, 2017
I don't care if McGowan tweeted a phone number or not. Twitter's rules seem uneven. Russian bots and Nazis are okay, but not a brave voice?— Robert Caruso (@robertcaruso) October 12, 2017
I've said it before, and I'll repeat it now: if a superior alternative to Twitter appeared tomorrow, I'd be gone from here in a heartbeat.— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) October 12, 2017
Although Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey chimed in with a note that the site needed to be more transparent, a lack of transparency isn’t the root of the real problem of McGowan’s suspension.
Taken together, the backlash over McGowan’s suspension and the skepticism toward Twitter’s subsequent statement illustrate the inconsistency in how Twitter applies its own rules across the growing ideological divide on its platform — and how deep the rift between the company and its user base has grown as a result.
Twitter’s inconsistency regarding what it deems bannable has caused perpetual frustration among its user base
The suspension of McGowan’s account neatly illustrates what has become a pattern in terms of how Twitter deals with harassment and abuse on its site. That is, while victims of abuse and marginalized users who deal with harassment are frequently censured over strict readings of Twitter’s abuse and safety rules, like McGowan, users who are widely seen as perpetuating real ideological violations of those rules are rarely censored.
Twitter has a long, inconsistent track record of overlooking the actions of people who have an ongoing pattern of controversial behavior on the platform — in particular, white supremacists. Before it permanently banned Milo Yiannopoulos last summer for inciting crowd harassment of actress Leslie Jones, Twitter suspended and then unsuspended him, multiple times in succession. The company also avoided taking action against President Donald Trump for exhibiting similar patterns of personal harassment of other individuals and crowd incitement to harass those individuals. It has also allowed white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, along with a host of other alt-right and white supremacist figures to remain active on the site. These figures include former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, even though Duke regularly tweets anti-Semitic content.
Even as prominent feminists have sworn off Twitter due to the perpetual harassment and abuse they faced on the platform, Twitter has seemed unable or unwilling to effectively grapple with the existence of hateful ideologies across its site, or the weaponization of its platform as a form of abuse:
How many accounts need to be locked for Twitter to realize they aren't handling a dogpile effectively? And these are just the ones that fit. pic.twitter.com/iMg0moKIoS— Kelly Ellis (@justkelly_ok) October 10, 2017
I've reported a tweet saying I should be sent to the gas chamber so Nazis can hear my screams multiple times since August. It's still there. https://t.co/JNwYmz0DJE— Coffee Spookie (@coffeespoonie) October 12, 2017
Rose McGowan's Twitter account has been suspended for inciting women to speak out against sexual harassment & rape. Anyway, lets hop on over to Richard Spencer's account & get the deets on the next Klan rally...— LTone (@LTone) October 12, 2017
twitter's cool cuz u can tweet photos of concentration camp ovens & pics of ppl being lynched but the f word is what sets off the algorithm https://t.co/W3x7ZyNrYr— Desus Nice (@desusnice) October 12, 2017
They were on her like a SEAL team on high alert, but it takes an army of complainants to get people suspended for doxxing game critics.— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) October 12, 2017
All of this is complicated by the fact that Twitter recently essentially made it an official policy to excuse aggressive and threatening content that would otherwise violate its own content policies in cases where the aggressive or threatening content qualifies as “newsworthy” — at least when it’s coming from President Trump. After Trump tweeted what appeared to be a threat of mass extinction to the country of North Korea on September 23, many Twitter users begged the company to suspend his Twitter account for rule violation. Twitter responded with an announcement that it had essentially given itself — and the president — a loophole around its own abuse policies for months: newsworthiness.
With that policy of exceptionalism in mind, it’s hard to see how Rose McGowan’s tweets fail to pass the “newsworthy” test.
It’s even harder to accept Twitter’s stated rationale for suspending McGowan, even temporarily, when you consider that it also verified WeSearchr, a notorious alt-right crowdfunding platform that essentially offers public “bounties” for various alt-right enemies, thus encouraging doxxing and harassment. The site routinely invites users to publicize the identities of individuals and confront them in person; last year its use by alt-right communities on Reddit, which has a strict policy against doxxing and harassment, contributed to several of those communities being banned.
The difference between Twitter’s handling of McGowan and WeSearchr neatly illustrates what is at this point the fundamental difference between the way Twitter has handled alt-right user accounts and the way it’s handled everyone else: that is, it holds strictly to the letter, rather than the spirit, of its own rules.
The result is that Twitter was quick to suspend McGowan for screencapping a phone number, but it gives a stamp of legitimacy to an entire site that is dedicated to doxxing people. Twitter will immediately suspend individual, lower-profile users over what seem like very minor infractions — such as when it suspended popular Twitter user meakoopa for repeating the (already publicly available) names of a homophobic couple he was in a fight with. But it won’t actually suspend the many prominent figures on its website who are primarily known for their racist, homophobic, and/or misogynistic viewpoints. And while all this is happening, the president of the United States can seemingly threaten nuclear war, retweet right-wing extremists, and promote violence with impunity because Twitter considers his tweets — and apparently no one else’s — “newsworthy.”
I’m not a tech mogul but posting a phone number seems less bad than threatening nuclear genocide https://t.co/NzGAOCvTfa— laura olin (@lauraolin) October 12, 2017
As soon as she was back on the website, McGowan defiantly weighed in on this theme:
when will nuclear war violate your terms of service? https://t.co/72FiiyoZ59— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) October 12, 2017
McGowan’s suspension makes clear that Twitter’s abuse policies, or at least its inconsistent and confusing enforcement of those policies, do not protect abuse victims. In particular, women like McGowan who have experienced harassment and attempted to speak out about it on Twitter can be silenced at any time using the same inconsistent policy that Twitter refuses to levy against a Richard Spencer, a David Duke, or a Donald Trump — men who take advantage of the vagueness of Twitter’s abuse policies to perpetuate racism, violence, harassment, and fear.
It’s never been more apparent where the balance of power lies on Twitter — a site where you can threaten to erase whole countries, advocate “white ethnostates,” and generally be a steaming garbage pile of a human being without apparent consequence, but you can’t tweet about your own sexual assault without getting a slap on the wrist.