The Twitter account of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke was suspended on Monday, but people who were eager to read the suspension as a positive sign that Twitter was actively shutting down Duke’s hate speech were quickly disappointed when the account was restored within hours.
Twitter has not clarified whether Duke’s ban was intended to be permanent or temporary, and the company has not responded to Vox’s request for comment. However, the quick reinstatement would seem to indicate that Duke’s ban was likely temporary due to a minor rule violation. The company remained vague in a statement issued to CNN and BuzzFeed:
We regularly review accounts and take action if they are found to have violated Twitter’s rules. If an account is found to have been suspended in error, we immediately restore it and notify the owner of our mistake.
Even Duke himself appeared to be confused. Once his account was reinstated, he tweeted, “I'm back. Though I have no idea why I was suspended.”
Duke’s Twitter presence appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Twitter’s abuse policy
This isn’t the first time Twitter has issued a temporary ban targeting known white supremacists such as Duke: In November, the company banned a number of accounts belonging to prominent members of the white nationalist alt-right movement, prompting many observers to celebrate what appeared to be a crackdown on the alt-right’s use of Twitter to spread hateful ideology. But Twitter later reinstated many of the banned accounts, claiming that the original bans had been temporary.
As it turned out, those bans were based on what is essentially a technicality, as opposed to a rethinking of how the accounts in question operate within Twitter’s abuse and harassment policy. For example, when white nationalist Richard Spencer was banned, it was because he was operating too many Twitter accounts and needed to choose one — not because his political agenda is inherently a violation of Twitter’s hateful conduct policy and its stated stance against accounts that “promote violence” and “incite fear” against protected groups.
In Duke’s case, the former Klan leader and lifelong anti-Semitic extremist often uses Twitter to make openly racist and anti-Semitic statements. His newly reinstated account contains numerous examples of this. One tweet appears to subtly threaten Barbra Streisand, who is Jewish, with physical harm — and thus seems to directly violate Twitter’s hateful conduct policy:
Numerous tweets from Duke place the names of groups or real people in triple parentheses — an anti-Semitic code used by the alt-right to identify and target Jewish individuals.
(((Schumer))) pulled visa strings for Indian athlete now accused of child sex abusehttps://t.co/APai87G25B— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) March 3, 2017
Another tweet insults the Marvel comic book character Captain America by putting his name in triple parentheses and calling him “globalist filth.”
Also of note: The word “globalism” is a well-established anti-Semitic code word, which links globalization to the anti-Semitic belief that Jewish people are conspiring in a vast global network to run the world. Duke’s phrasing, “globalist filth,” is literally calling Captain America, who was created by Jewish artists, a dirty Jew.
David Duke’s suspension and reinstatement are the latest entries in Twitter’s ambivalent approach to moderating extremist views on the website
Twitter has come under intense scrutiny and criticism since the 2016 election for its on-again, off-again approach to dealing with accounts run by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and members of the alt-right. Though it has recently stepped up its attempts to curb harassment and give users more control over their experience on the site, it has made little attempt to establish stricter guidelines regarding the often dehumanizing identity politics that play out on the platform.
While Duke’s initial suspension raised the question of what Duke had finally done to warrant action from Twitter, the suspension was so brief, and in line with Twitter’s recent reinstatement of other alt-right accounts, that it prompts the larger question of whether Twitter will ever be willing to permanently ban neo-Nazis and other alt-right leaders from the website.
While Duke and other similar Twitter users may not actually launch hateful personal attacks, their political agendas are fundamentally based on dehumanizing entire groups of people. But Twitter has consistently seemed reluctant to issue judgment on the kind of hate-filled rhetorical arguments used by such accounts, as opposed to direct hate speech against individuals. In essence, Twitter chooses to allow accounts that avoid direct hate speech while pushing hateful agendas in evasive ways.
For instance, accounts like that of the American Nazi Party seem to consistently walk the thin line between “hate speech” and “technically violating the letter of Twitter’s abuse policy,” remaining active even as they tweet pro-Nazi, anti-immigrant statements.
For his part, once his account was restored, Duke immediately resumed tweeting about his desire for an all-white “ethno state.”