clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The drama over Mitch McConnell’s Twitter account, explained

Twitter is giving Republicans more fuel for their bias claims.

Protesters holding signs outside of Mitch McConnell’s office after two mass shootings in August.
Protesters outside Mitch McConnell’s office after two mass shootings in August.
Luke Sharrett/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s team would tweet out a video of people making threats to him — or, really, that Twitter would decide that’s the moment to crack down on the account. But here we are.

Conservatives found yet another reason to war with social media this week after Twitter temporarily locked McConnell’s “Team Mitch” campaign account on Wednesday. The social media platform said the decision was made because the account had tweeted content that violated its “violent threats policy, specifically threats involving physical safety.”

The tweet in question was not one in which Team Mitch was attacking one of his political opponents; instead, it was of a video of protesters outside McConnell’s home on Monday, where they’d gathered to call for the Kentucky Republican to take action on gun control after two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend left 31 people dead. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, in the video, Black Lives Matter Louisville leader Chanelle Helm can be heard in the video saying that McConnell, who fractured his shoulder in a fall last weekend, “should have broken his little raggedy, wrinkled-ass neck.” Someone also made reference to a McConnell voodoo doll, to which Helm replied, “Just stab the motherfucking heart.”

McConnell’s campaign account appears to have tweeted the video in response to uproar over a photo of a group of young men in Team Mitch shirts posing with a cutout of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the photo, one of the young men appears to be pretending to choke the New York Democrat, and another is pretending to kiss her.

“Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and liberal Twitter personalities are trying to dox some underage kids for taking a photo with a cutout at the Fancy Farm political picnic and are cheering on thousands of accounts calling for Senator McConnell to ‘break his neck,’” McConnell’s account tweeted before it was locked. “These threats go far beyond a political cartoon or a broken shoulder, they are serious calls to physical violence and we’ve alerted law enforcement.”

McConnell’s campaign was able to reactivate the account on Friday after editing part of the video. The debacle, and Twitter’s original decision to take down the video and lock the Team Mitch account, ignited outrage among some Republicans, some of whom even threatened to stop advertising on the site. It’s provided more fodder for those who claim social media companies are engaged in widespread anti-conservative bias, for which there is no evidence.

The situation also highlights ongoing confusion over how and when social media companies enforce their content moderation policies, which sets the stage for incidents like this to be blown out of proportion.

The video tweet was the culmination of some brewing drama on Twitter

Leading up to the tweet of the video and Twitter’s decision to take it down, the Team Mitch account and those who oppose McConnell had already been engaging in some eyebrow-raising behavior.

On August 3, the day of the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, McConnell’s account tweeted a picture of tombstones. One of them had the name of Amy McGrath, who is challenging McConnell for his Senate seat, and listed the date as November 3, 2020, which is Election Day. The tweet also referred to McConnell as the “Grim Reaper of Socialism.”

McGrath responded that it is “troubling that our politics have become so nasty and personal” that McConnell’s team “thinks it’s appropriate to use imagery of the death of a political opponent” as messaging. She also noted the poor taste of the tweet’s timing. McConnell’s camp says the tweet was a reference to a cartoon that appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this year that highlighted a number of political issues and opponents the majority leader had metaphorically stymied.

McConnell has also come under increasing pressure to call the Senate, which is on recess, back into session to take action on gun control. His critics on Twitter have begun to refer to him as #MassacreMitch.

The video tweet was sort of the culmination of all this, including the picture of the McConnell supporters with the Ocasio-Cortez cutout.

Twitter says this is about its violent threats policies. Republicans say it’s more.

Twitter says its decision to take down Team Mitch’s video tweet and lock the account is a simple question of enforcement on content that violates its rules.

Specifically, the company points to its violent threats policy, which prohibits “threats of violence against an individual or a group of people” as well as the “glorification of violence.” Basically, Twitter’s reasoning is that the posted video contains threats to McConnell, and so it had to be taken down, even if the person the threats are being made to is the person who’s putting out the video on the first place. Twitter can be pretty hit-or-miss about enforcing its policies, which has likely contributed to some of the confusion and controversy here.

The decision was not related to Twitter’s June announcement of a new policy on tweets from government officials or political figures that break its rules, in which the social media platform said it would put a warning label on tweets but wouldn’t take them down because they’re relevant to the public interest. Twitter has not yet enforced this new policy on anyone.

Republicans, who have long insisted there’s widespread anti-conservative bias baked into social media algorithms, say Twitter’s decision on the Team Mitch account is just another example of Big Tech being out to get them.

“This is a problem with the speech police in America today,” Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager, told the Courier-Journal. “The Lexington Herald-Leader can attack Mitch with cartoon tombstones of his opponents. But we can’t mock it.”

Golden also criticized Twitter for letting #MassacreMitch trend nationally and said they had appealed the decision.

Some groups, including the Republican Party and the Trump campaign, reacted by saying they’ll suspend ad spending on Twitter until the situation is resolved. Parker Hamilton Poling, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said she had directed the group to “immediately halt all spending” on Twitter until the account was reactivated. Other leaders and groups made similar announcements — many of them, unironically, on Twitter.

McConnell said in a radio interview on Thursday that he and his team are “in a major war” with Twitter, according to the New York Times.

Republicans are on the lookout for reasons to claim bias

McConnell is not wrong in his assessment that there is a conflict going on between Twitter and Republicans — or really, between Republicans and a lot of social media companies.

Many conservatives insist that Big Tech is out to get them, even though there is no widespread evidence that’s the case. On the eve of President Donald Trump’s social media summit in July, which did not include representatives of any major social media companies, I laid out the various ways Republicans have sought to gin up anger over supposed bias:

Trump has rolled out a social media bias reporting tool that is basically a ploy to get people’s information and build out the White House email list. He consistently complains that Twitter is out to get him because his follower count keeps dropping, even though it’s part of a larger push toward health on the platform, and many prominent users are seeing their follower counts fall as a result. When social media companies have taken action against bad actors, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Trump has complained that companies are out to get them — but not acknowledged that these figures have failed to comply with the platforms’ terms of service. He has also accused Google of trying to rig the 2020 election against him.

And it’s not just Trump who’s leveraging allegations of anti-conservative bias to draw attention to himself and make tech companies nervous. Last year, Republican members of Congress hauled conservative Trump supporters Diamond and Silk up to Capitol Hill for a hearing on social media filtering that was described as “bizarre,” “ridiculous,” and a “surreal spectacle.”

In July, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) held a hearing on his allegations that Google has anti-conservative bias. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who has cast himself as an anti-tech crusader on Capitol Hill, in June rolled out a tech regulation bill that Recode’s Peter Kafka described as a “joke.” Trump is reportedly considering an executive order to combat alleged anti-conservative bias and has claimed Google is going to rig the election against him.

To be sure, social media companies are not perfect. They hold enormous amounts of power, and we’re in a moment of reckoning with how Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others have shaped our politics and culture and whether they should be regulated. They have a lot of room to grow when it comes to explaining their policies. And they are biased — but not toward or against a particular political ideology or party. Social media companies are biased toward extremism and against boring.

Politicians should be taking a hard look at social media companies and having big conversations about how to approach them. But that’s not what this Team Mitch Twitter controversy is — it’s a way for the GOP to spin up anti-tech anger without addressing the bigger issues at hand.