Over at Reason, Robby Soave reports on Twitter's recent ban of Jesse Kelly, a firebrand conservative commentator. Based on what little we know about the situation, Kelly's account was allegedly blacklisted by the social media giant with no explanation, which Soave and others have noted may itself be a violation of Twitter's own rules:
Twitter is a private company and can ban anyone it wants, of course. But it would be helpful if the site administrators explained what exactly Kelly did to merit such draconian measures—especially if Twitter wishes to put a damper on the right-wing notion that social media censorship is a serious issue meriting federal intervention. It's not clear which tweets got Kelly in trouble, or if it was something else. The decision to ban him could have been the result of baseless complaints, or even an error on Twitter's part. Kelly told other conservative writers that he was left completely in the dark, reportedly receiving the following message from Twitter: "Your account was permanently suspended due to multiple or repeat violations of the Twitter rules. The account will not restored. Please do not respond to this email as replies and new appeals for this account will not be monitored." If this was truly the full extent of Twitter's communication with Kelly, then the social media platform has violated its own policy. As the writer Jeryl Bier pointed out, Twitter's terms claim that a permanent ban will be accompanied by an explanation of which policies were violated "and which content was in violation."
If this is all @TwitterSupport has told @JesseKellyDC, then @twitter is in violation of it's own rules. When an account is permanently suspended, Twitter promises to "explain which policy or policies they have violated and which content was in violation."https://t.co/IrtIF8iKnd pic.twitter.com/MjpxiJ5zBN— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) November 26, 2018
The key word here is "if." We do not know what, if any, communications had taken place between Kelly and Twitter in the past -- including potential explicit warnings based on specific conduct or rules violations. Kelly is reportedly telling friends that this is the entire extent of his interaction with Twitter in regards to the ban, though it's unclear what may have preceded it. Twitter officials have repeatedly asserted that the platform does not discriminate based on viewpoints, a claim that is often met with widespread skepticism among conservatives. I do not know Kelly personally, and when I've had the occasion to run across some of his tweets or work, I have often found myself disagreeing with his opinions, both in terms of tone and substance. That might make me a "pinky out" conservative in his estimation, but that's irrelevant to this discussion. I'd like to know more about the justification for permanently banning Kelly (evidently with no possibility of appeal), whereas the account for Antifa's "Smash Racism DC" is merely suspended, despite numerous instances of using Twitter to organize or showcase physical harassment and intimidation.
The truth is that whether they think it's warranted or not, Twitter has a growing perception problem on the Right, with notions of double standards and ideological bias taking deep root. Glenn Reynolds, the popular conservative blogger and professor who writes and tweets as 'Instapundit,' announced yesterday that he's deactivated his account because he doesn't believe the platform is treating right-wing users fairly:
Although there’s nothing duller than posting a screed on why you’re quitting a platform, here’s the gist: I’ve never liked Twitter even though I’ve used it. I was a late adopter, and with good reason. It’s the crystal meth of social media — addictive and destructive, yet simultaneously unsatisfying. When I’m off it I’m happier than when I’m on it. That it’s also being run by crappy SJW types who break their promises, to users, shareholders, and the government, of free speech is just the final reason. Why should I provide free content to people I don’t like, who hate me? I’m currently working on a book on social media, and I keep coming back to the point that Twitter is far and away the most socially destructive of the various platforms. So I decided to suspend them, as they are suspending others. At least I’m giving my reasons, which is more than they’ve done usually.
Elsewhere, Fox News' official Twitter account has been dormant since November 8, apparently in protest of what the network believes was the tech company's unacceptably slow response to pulling down tweets that contained host Tucker Carlson's personal address, posted by the aforementioned Antifa-linked group during an appalling incident at Carlson's home. (This Variety write-up of Fox's boycott, by the way, embarrassingly white-washes the threats and intimidation as a "rally" in which "protesters" merely "visited" Carlson's house. Numerous awful details are omitted, with Carlson and Fox framed as the bad actors. Bias is real). If Twitter is driving away Instapundit and Fox News, and alienating their large respective audiences, that's a red flag. Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of The Federalist has re-shared a piece Kelly published just a few months ago, amid the melee over multiple social media companies' decision to de-platform vile conspiracy theorist Alex Jones:
Here's a piece Jesse Kelly wrote in August that now seems appropriate to reshare: "The Left Won't Stop At Alex Jones. We Are Sliding Down A Slippery Slope." https://t.co/JAokiGL4Lt— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) November 26, 2018
“It’s only Alex Jones” is a comforting blanket. It’s the child who closes his eyes and covers his ears in the naïve hope that the monster disappears if you can’t see or hear him. But the monster does NOT disappear. And it is most definitely NOT just Jones. Yesterday it was Jones. Today, YouTube censored human vanilla Dennis Prager. Tomorrow, there may be a knock on YOUR door. Freedom is not something you acquire by practicing it. You don’t one day wake up and decide you are free. Freedom is something tangible and it requires the cooperation of others. If others will not give you that cooperation, you have to take it from them. We need to stop whistling past the graveyard and realize the left is seeking total victory. They do not want to compete in a marketplace of ideas. Their goal is to silence dissenting voices.
Many are now calling this warning prescient. Because Kelly was writing about the Jones dust-up, it seems worthwhile to revisit my reaction to that controversy: "Just because large private businesses and organizations can take certain actions, or impose forms of sanctions, that doesn't necessarily mean they should. I'll leave you with a few disjointed thoughts related to this general subject: (1) If we continue to move toward de-platforming fringe voices (with the 'fringe' being a moving target), do we risk shoving disgusting speech "underground," where it will fester or even radicalize in more harmful ways? (2) If major social media companies are widely seen as discriminatory against the Right, and other platforms crop up as competition, would the resulting ideologically-bifurcated, increasingly-polarized social media landscape be better or worse for our national health? (3) I'm not a fan of 'nationalizing' industries or treating more private companies as effective public utilities -- but to what extent do platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube qualify as the modern definition of the 'public square,' vis-a-vis our collective conception of free speech?"
Basically all of those sentiments apply to the current scenario. Twitter and private companies have the right to do a lot of things that nevertheless harm our civic health. These concerns may not technically pose a First Amendment issue, per se, but they certainly pertain to our wider understanding of free expression and the fundamental value of free speech. As I concede above, social media companies are not government entities, but they're extremely powerful gatekeepers to our online communities and to the modern equivalent of the public square. Their role in our national discourse and our societal commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas, including objectionable ideas, should therefore not be minimized. I've never claimed there are easy answers, but it doesn't feel like the trajectory is headed in a particularly hopeful direction at the moment.
A few parting disclosures: I've had the opportunity to address Twitter's global workforce, to interview their CEO, and to visit their headquarters in San Francisco. I've very much appreciated those opportunities, and hope to maintain my relationship with their team. I'm also an active user of the platform, despite its drawbacks. But as Jack Dorsey told me in our sit-down, the company does have some ideological blindspots; for example, conservative employees often feel marginalized and unable to share their views, he said. Right-leaning Twitter users were unsurprised by that revelation, and many privately asked me whether any affirmative steps were being taken to foster more fairness and diversity. Twitter needs to be much more forward-leaning in addressing these concerns, in my opinion, and the Kelly fracas has only underscored this point. Frustrated users could use more transparency, responsiveness, accountability, and consistency -- and more concrete assurances that steps are being taken to mitigate the (admitted) overwhelming leftward bent of Silicon Valley.
Finally, as the co-author of End of Discussion, I very much agree that the impulse to silence or disqualify opposing voices, as a replacement for engagement and debate, is generally a pernicious proposition. These dispiriting observations resonate with me:
It is not how our side sees things. It is how others see everything. If someone says things you disagree with, get them banned or fired. If someone donates to a candidate you dislike, campaign to blackball them. Civil, reasoned debate is dying - being killed - in America. https://t.co/IK44zR5OtB— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) November 26, 2018