Site can’t have it both ways on free-speech issues
by Paul Wells
It’s a strange feeling walking away from something that has taken up a substantial fraction of your waking life for seven years. On Monday, I deactivated my Twitter account.
It’s like slamming on some brake inside your head. When I took a quick lunch on Tuesday, I read from a book instead of casting about for three smart-assed things to say on Twitter. I’m not sure what just happened in the world – like in the past 10 minutes or so – but I’m toying with the theory that not knowing is all right. If it was important, people will still be talking about it 10 minutes from now. I’m hoping to be about 2-per-cent wiser by the weekend than I would have been.
But that hope isn’t why I walked away from Twitter.
In my case, there’s a lot to walk away from. On New Year’s Eve in 2009, I joined the micro-blogging site, which restricts users to 140 characters at a time on whatever subject they want to discuss. By the beginning of this week, I’d written 90,000 tweets, for an audience that was closing in on 60,000 followers.
Almost every journalist I know is on Twitter more or less constantly. It’s a valuable resource. Most journalists in the world tweet about breaking news before they start to write it or recite it to camera.
Having those extra minutes of insider knowledge is a huge rush. And following the top experts on Brexit or jazz or cooking or humour – a few of my long-standing preoccupations – is a bonus.
I wrote about 30 tweets a day, on average. It’s probably good for any writer to spend time on Twitter. If you can’t make your point in 30 words, you may not have one.
Above all, Twitter, for me, was a way to automate the easily distracted, bottomlessly curious work habits I’ve had since I was a kid. Interested in everything, with almost no attention span. Constantly jumping up from my workstation to gossip with colleagues, or to try a line aloud to see whether it got a laugh. I’ve been doing that since the ’80s. Twitter just made that kind of behaviour convenient, and far more intense.
But there were problems. This week, they got worse.
Anyone on Twitter knows it is overloaded with jackasses, most of them hopped up on testosterone and posting anonymously.
This makes too much of Twitter feel like a fire hose of bathroom graffiti, complete with disgusting politics, toilet humour, sexual obsession and attempts to degrade others. The avalanche of sexist, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic abuse against too many users has been exhaustively chronicled.
My own imperfect response was to block anyone who tried to pick a fight.
But I’ve seen gentler souls take appalling abuse. A friend wrote a sweet, funny observation about her baby daughter. It got misinterpreted, twisted, amplified across dozens of accounts and soon my friend was facing near-constant abuse from across North America. One guy wrote that he’d like to watch her daughter die. The people at Twitter were good enough to suspend his account. Too many others are allowed to carry on.
Twitter knows it has a problem on its hands. It has tried, with slowly increasing zeal, to block the worst abusers.
But because the company proclaims its allegiance to free speech, it hasn’t done the most obvious thing: require users to post under their own name and provide proof of identity when signing up.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the free-speech argument. There are people on Twitter who say valuable things that their employers or governments don’t want said. Abuse is a nasty by-product of the cover Twitter gives useful speech.
But what if the cover itself isn’t dependable?
Mahir Zeynalov is a Turkish journalist who has been chronicling the excesses of Turkey’s government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years.
Arbitrary arrest, mass firings, blacklisting, newsroom purges. The abuses accelerated after the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July gave him a pretext for wide-scale oppression against perceived opponents.
The best source for news of this tinpot tyranny has been Zeynalov, tweeting in exile in the United States after Erdogan had him deported in 2014.
But this week Twitter emailed Zeynalov to tell him the Turkish government has called for his account to be blocked in Turkey.
By midday Monday, Zeynalov’s case was murky. Twitter told him it “has not taken any action on the reported account at this time. One of our core values is to defend and respect the user’s voice.” Good news!
But the email continued that Twitter “may consider filing petition of objection” if Zeynalov wished.
Compared to the answer the Erdogan regime should have received – “Go to hell” – that message is awfully equivocal.
Twitter is not worth much if it folds like a cheap suit when one of the most thin-skinned autocrats on Earth says “boo.”
Until Twitter makes it clear that it has the back of Zeynalov and other public truth-tellers, it cannot credibly protest that its users have to put up with brigades of anonymous liars.
And while it sorts out its assorted positions on free speech, Twitter can get along without me.
Paul Wells is a national affairs writer.
His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services