Twitter has erased an account that claimed to be affiliated with the militant left-wing antifa movement but actually was operated by a white nationalist group.
The group, Identity Evropa, began tweeting Sunday night, calling for violent action in the suburbs of cities where demonstrators were protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 in Minneapolis, NBC News reported Monday.
Floyd died after a white police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while he was handcuffed face down on the ground.
President Donald Trump has claimed, with little evidence, that antifa was behind some of the violence and property destruction that has occurred in cities where protests have been held.
Twitter scotched the account because it violated the company’s manipulation and spam policy, which bans “coordinated activity that attempts to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automation and/or scripting.”
Twitter’s latest action wasn’t the first time it has taken down accounts displaying hateful conduct and linked to the white nationalist group, NBC noted. Twitter removed two hashtags from its trending topics section because they were part of coordinated attempts to disrupt the public conversation around the protests.
Twitter did not respond to our request for comment for this story.
Twitter has come under fire recently for some of its enforcement actions, most notably those against the president. Although taking on the White House was a first for Twitter, its move against the bogus white nationalist accounts has precedents.
“We’re talking about inauthentic behavior,” said Alex Engler, a fellow at Brookings, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
“That has been prohibited on these platforms for some time,” he told TechNewsWorld. “That’s not unique to Twitter. Facebook has also taken down inauthentic behavior.”
It was not the substance of the account posts that prompted Twitter to act, suggested Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Emerson College in Boston.
“When it comes to the white nationalist account, it’s not what’s published on the account. It’s about transparency — the identity portrayed,” he told TechNewsWorld. “There is clear obstruction of who is behind the account.”
Twitter Is No Town Square
Twitter does muzzle some of its users’ content from time to time, however.
“Twitter threatens the ability of users to post content all of the time, thanks to content moderation policies,” said Mathew Feeney, director of the project on emerging technologies at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
Those policies include restrictions on bots, and bans on all kinds of legal content, such as images of graphic violence and pornography.
“Twitter’s understandable use of content moderation policies has no impact on the users’ legal right to free speech, even if it results in content being removed,” Feeney told TechNewsWorld.
First Amendment rights don’t extend to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, noted Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“The First Amendment protects our right to free speech in the town square and the steps of city hall, but not in someone’s living room or private business,” North told TechNewsWorld.
“In a private business like Twitter, the rules are the rules of Twitter, not the First Amendment” she continued.
“Just as restaurants, a club or a business could have a code of conduct or dress code, the social media platforms are private businesses, and when we join them, we agree to their code of conduct,” North explained.
“It’s not illegal to say things that glorify violence in the town square, but it is against the rules of Twitter,” she said.
Platform or Publisher?
“That distinction isn’t legally meaningful,” Cato’s Feeney said.
“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is the law at the core of the social media content moderation debate, does not make a distinction between ‘publishers’ and ‘platforms,'” he pointed out.
“Twitter can be held liable for publishing content — such as fact checks or a post on Twitter’s blog — but not for the vast majority of content posted by users,” Feeney maintained.
“Even traditional publishers enjoy Section 230 protections, as in The New York Times comment section,” he said.
What social media platforms are doing now is no different from what they’ve been doing for years, Brookings’ Engler added.
“They’re enforcing standards against certain kinds of content that are a problem,” he observed.
“A call to violence isn’t a new standard,” Engler continued. “The difference is that Twitter is holding Trump accountable in the same way. That’s what’s novel.”
Avoiding the President’s Wrath
Both Facebook and Twitter have made attempts to deal with misinformation, but they’re going about it in different ways, Feeney said.
“Most recently, Facebook has been on the receiving end of criticism for declining to engage in the kind of fact-checking of the president seen on Twitter,” he noted. “However, Facebook has been aggressive in removing content associated with anti-COVID lockdowns.”
Twitter is willing to hold politicians to its rules, Engler said, while Facebook isn’t inclined to do so.
“Twitter is trying to grapple with the question of when does speech cross the line and become dangerous. Facebook hasn’t engaged with that line when it comes to officials,” he said.
“Facebook appears to be unwilling to enforce what their community standards say for public officials,” he continued. “That benefits Trump in a way that’s politically suspect. It helps Facebook avoid Trump’s wrath and anger with Trump’s political base.”
The verdict is still out on the business impact of Twitter’s aggressive rules enforcement.
“I can’t see the removal of a fake account having a lasting negative impact on Twitter’s business,” Feeney said. “However, there is a risk that if Twitter engages in more content moderation of the president’s tweets — whether that’s removal or fact-checking — that it will lose users who flee the service in protest or in search of an alternative.”
The fact that people are so concerned about Twitter’s behavior illustrates the powerful impact the platform is having on political discourse in the United States at the moment, observed Emerson College’s Raynauld.
“Donald Trump can completely change the discourse in one tweet,” he said. “These platforms can really shape the conversation, while traditional media is behind the platforms in shaping the conversation.”