Twitter accused of bias in alt-right crackdown
As part of a renewed effort to crack down on harassment, Twitter suspended a number of accounts associated with the "alt right" movement USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — Ariana Rowlands, a 20-year-old college student from Southern California, is half Mexican and half Welsh, a child of immigrants raised on telenovelas and burritos. She's also a fervent conservative who regularly airs her political views on Twitter.
"So proud of my Hispanic Heritage and so proud to support @realDonaldTrump for President!!" she tweeted in September under a hashtag celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Soon after, she began receiving personal attacks and death threats, she says.
Rowlands reported the abuse but she says Twitter did nothing. And, she says, it wasn't the first time Twitter ignored concerns for her safety that she and her Twitter followers expressed and even reported to police.
"I want to stress that it's not like we're crying victim or anything like that," Rowlands said in an interview. "It's just that we're pointing out the double standard."
Rampant abuse on Twitter is in the spotlight coming off a bitterly divisive election season that turned the social media service into a political battleground. When it comes to policing behavior from warring sides that crosses the line, conservatives say Twitter is guilty of left-wing favoritism. The rash of recent suspensions of high-profile alt-right accounts is more evidence of that favoritism, they say.
"The commonality of these groups that are being targeted is their politics, and you don't see it on the other side as much," D.C. McAllister, a columnist for conservative news service PJ Media and The Federalist, said in an interview.
"There are Twitter accounts on the left that are suspended, but it's not en masse like it is here."
Whether Twitter has taken a more aggressive stance with some users over its harassment policies is hard to prove: Twitter gives few details, if any, when it suspends accounts, and some observers say the fault lies more in its failure to rein in abuse regardless of the political tilt.
But the perception that it has a double standard runs strong. Twitter's suspension of alt-right leader Richard Spencer contributed to the suspicion that Twitter is arbitrarily stifling conservative speech. Spencer, who coined the term alt right in 2010, says he was tossed from Twitter for his political views — he wants to segregate the United States by racial groups — not for harassing Twitter users. He was suspended alongside the accounts of other white nationalists.
Conservatives say their ouster fits a pattern of liberal bias.
In July when Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones was subjected to racist and sexist taunts led by Breitbart technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey intervened and yanked Yiannopoulos from the service.
Yet, conservatives say, nothing happened to rapper Talib Kweli and his followers when they attacked black Breitbart reporter Jerome Hudson with racial slurs. When Breitbart contributor Kassy Dillon complained about a Twitter user who sent her harassing tweets and messages, Twitter made the perpetrator delete one tweet that suggested someone shoot Dillon in the head.
Twitter refused to comment directly on the allegation that it ignores abuse hurled at conservatives. "The Twitter rules prohibit violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct and multiple account abuse, and we will take action on accounts violating those policies," the company said in an emailed statement.
Long before the contentious election, Twitter was under growing pressure to cut off the gushing fire hose of hate and harassment that targeted people.
Users don't have to reveal their real names on Twitter and that anonymity emboldens them to attack women, people of color, Muslims, gays and other groups, even threaten rape and death. The alt right, a loose-knit group that embraces white nationalism among other things, gained prominence during the presidential campaign for using social media to spread its ideology through viral memes and anonymous attacks on users from pro-Donald Trump accounts.
The Anti-Defamation League documented a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic tweets targeting journalists who covered the Republican presidential candidate. After the election, the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer published a list of more than 50 Twitter users who had expressed fear about the outcome of the election, urging its readers to "punish" them with a barrage of tweets that would drive them to suicide.
"While we have taken steps over the years to try to combat abuse and harassment, we haven't moved as quickly as we would have liked or we haven't always done as much as we would have liked because we have tried to make sure we are not making decisions that have unintended, negative consequences and ramifications," Del Harvey, Twitter's head of safety, recently told USA TODAY.
As a private platform, Twitter is not required to treat all users equally. Harvey says Twitter is drawing a hard line between free speech and "behavior that is intended to silence others."
But conservatives say they see public shows of support for liberals and their causes, such as gay rights and racial justice, yet Twitter turns a deaf ear when left-wing activists target them.
"When liberals complain, Jack Dorsey is on their side. He sees their point of view. He cares about their feelings," said Rowlands, who is president of the UC Irvine College Republicans, a group that had a run-in with campus administrators when it hosted an event with Yiannopoulos and then invited him back for another.
"But because I am a conservative, it seems like Twitter doesn't actually care," she said. "They selectively choose when they want to follow their own rules."
Twitter isn't alone in facing allegations of political bias from the right. Earlier this year, Facebook was accused of intentionally suppressing conservative news from appearing on Trending Topics, its listing of the most popular news stories on Facebook. Facebook denied the charge.
James Grimmelmann, a Cornell law professor who studies social networks, says he does not believe Twitter's lapses are politically motivated. Complaints are just as common on the left as they are on the right, he said.
"Twitter is terrible at listening to anybody about harassment," he said. "The rare exceptions are those who organize media campaigns and get enough attention to catch Jack's ear. That is a very small number of people compared with the amount of harassment that gets reported to Twitter."
In the tense aftermath of the election, Twitter may be even less effective at cracking down on abusive behavior anywhere on the political spectrum, said Syracuse University communications professor Jennifer Grygiel, who studies social media.
"Everyone is blowing up their phones," Grygiel said. "The Twitter moderation queue must be off the hook."
McAllister sees it differently. She believes Twitter moderators are demonstrating their political bias when deciding which complaints to take seriously. She also says conservatives are less likely than what she labels "social justice warriors" on the left to complain about abuse. If Twitter was simply "incompetent," she said, suspensions and other penalties would be "a lot more random."
"They are a private company and they can do what they want," she said. But, "people have their biases and it comes through in their work."
"We are always telling people to check their privilege. They need to check their biases," McAllister said. "What we are asking from Twitter is fairness."