Chris Keall: Twitter – The secret policeman


Twitter hit headlines for permanently suspending US President Donald Trump’s account on January 8.

But it also suspended some 70,000 far-right accounts in the days that followed, including hundreds of NZ accounts, including high-profile accounts Redbaiternz and Damien de Ment.

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Twitter said in a January 13 statement, “Given the violent events in Washington, DC, and increased risk of harm, we began permanently suspending thousands of accounts that were primarily dedicated to sharing QAnon content on Friday afternoon.”

Many found it satisfying to see Trump and many of his followers finally removed from Twitter and other social media platforms after an avalanche of abuse, incitement and misinformation.

But some see Twitter and its peers engaging in a brief burst of tougher content self-policing in a bid to head off outside regulation – or that it was simply inappropriate for private companies to permanently silence any political figure.

One was, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards. Posting from his personal Twitter accounton January 9, Edwards called the bans “arbitrary” and “cynical”.

“Much worse has been allowed, and is still present on both platforms than the precipitating posts”, Edwards said, adding, “We should not be abdicating responsibility for the tough policy decisions required, and delegating responsibility for our community standards to conflicted corporates.”

Now, NZ Council for Civil Liberties chairman Thomas Beagle has weighed in, telling the Herald, “Twitter is now where much political discourse happens but it includes national leaders, elected representatives, civil society leaders, journalists, domain experts, and many other interested people.

“Twitter has worked hard to get into that dominant position and, while it’s a private company, I believe that that dominant position means it has a responsibility to freedom of expression.

“This means that as a minimum it should explain its policies, use good process to enact its decisions, and provide a right of appeal.”

Beagle added, “Any sort of mass cull will surely catch up others by mistake – I’ve seen that at least one account dedicated to exposing QAnon lies was suspended. What process does Twitter have to allow people to appeal these decisions?”

Beagle added, “Secondly, while many of these accounts were bots of little value, it seems that some were long-running accounts run by real people. Does Twitter allow suspended accounts to download their personal archive?”

The Council for Civil Liberties head also wanted to know if the hundreds of NZ accounts suspended over recent days had been culled by algorithms or people on a review panel, or a mix of both.

The Herald put Beagle’s questions to Twitter’s local operation, based in Sydney. A spokeswoman replied with a one-liner: “We take action on accounts that engage in behaviours that violate the Twitter Rules in line with our range of enforcement options.”

She also forwarded a line to a Twitter support page that includes a link to an online form where you can appeal against a suspension.

A message at the top of the suspension appeal page says, “Our support team is experiencing some delays for reviews and responses right now, but we encourage you to report all potential issues.”

Earlier the Herald reported that tech entrepreneur Lance Wiggs had both his personal Twitter account and that of his FMA-regulated company, Punakaiki Fund, suspended late last year.

The timing was poor, to say the least, with Punakaiki in the throes of an (ultimately successful) fundraising round during December, with its account forced offline.

On the face of things, it was a headscratcher. Wiggs’ personal account largely sticks to venture capital and public transport and workplace safety issues. He’s a straight-up-and-down character who doesn’t involve in flame wars or sound off about Trump. And via Punakaiki Fund, he also happens to be a Twitter advertiser.

Wiggs tried to reach Twitter through its help channels but never got any response. His accounts were eventually unsuspended, but with no reason given.

Earlier this week, the Herald had the chance to discuss Wiggs’ situation with a rep for Twitter Australia-New Zealand but, so far, an explanation has yet to emerge of why he and his company were suspended, or why his efforts to appeal against his suspension went unanswered.

“It relates back to that the fact that these platforms are essentially monopolies controlled by offshore folks who by and large don’t really care about the New Zealand market, and may not even have people in the country,” Wiggs says.

Regulating social media is tricky, as illustrated by Trump’s final months in office.

His own all-pervasive presence on Twitter and Facebook and analysis that the right ruled both platforms notwithstanding, the US President accused social media platforms of censoring conservative voices.

But the Trump’s favoured method of pushing the social media companies ran counter to that interest, and indeed would have led to a much harsher clampdown and many more accounts suspended.

Google not as big as you think

Through an Executive Order (powerless and ignored) and a rider to a Defence Bill (deleted by Republicans in Congress for being irrelevant), the President tried to kill Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – a US law, dating from 1996, that essentially bars people from suing providers of an “interactive computer service” for libel if users post defamatory messages on their platforms because they are not regarded as traditional publishers.

Trump failed, and the free-speech shield remained in place for Twitter and Facebook. But with great power comes great responsibility. Right now, neither is being transparent or consistent enough about how they wield it.

The same message needs to go to Google, which has recently run what it calls an “experiment” across the Tasman whereby stories published by a number of mainstream newspapers, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, were removed from the top of search results.

The “experiment” coincided with a Federal government debate over whether to impose a new code on Google and Facebook that would force them to negotiate a fair price for displaying local news content.

Expect many more instances of such “creative tension” as various governments around the world make efforts to regulate Big Tech.

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