Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas in 2012. Photo: EurĂłpa Pont/flickr.

Twitter bans Nazi groups, but also a journalist

December 19, 2017
Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas in 2012. Photo: EurĂłpa Pont/flickr.

Twitter is rolling out new rules aimed at stifling the activities of neo-Nazis and hate groups, but it is also coming under fire for suspending the account of a well-known Egyptian journalist.

Over the past year, neo-Nazi and alt-right groups have gained prominence online, in part because of the rise of Donald Trump and his tacit—and not so tacit—support. And as these agitators have become more active online, critics and victims of their attacks have called on social networks like Twitter to take some action against them.

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In response, Twitter announced this week it will crack down on the groups. Within hours of the announcement on Monday, a number of prominent accounts including the far-right group Britain First had been taken offline.

The move is being cheered by many as a belated step in the right direction, a suggestion that Twitter has finally gotten the message about the need to filter or block certain kinds of speech.

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At the same time, however, Twitter is coming under fire for blocking the account of Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas, a move that raises some difficult questions about the company’s ability to censor speech, and the risks that doing so poses both for Twitter and for society as a whole. Twitter won’t say why Abbas’ account has been blocked, saying it doesn’t comment on individual accounts, but some believe it might have come as a result of pressure from Egyptian authorities.

Although the company is well within its rights to block or allow whatever it wants to on its platform (since the First Amendment only applies to government), Twitter’s regulation of speech brings with it significant risks that the platform may remove certain kinds of speech that deserve to be more widely heard, such as the posts by Abbas.

Abbas has been documenting Egyptian government abuse of its own citizens on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, including police brutality and assault, since before the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. His account was suspended briefly by YouTube in 2007, and his Facebook account has also been deleted at least once. By removing his account, other activists say Twitter has deleted a record of the abuse committed by the government.

In a Facebook post, Abbas said that when he was first notified by Twitter about the suspension last week, the company said his account would be deactivated permanently, but in a follow-up email Twitter told him his account had been suspended for a specific period, but it didn’t specify how long or the reason for the suspension.

On the Egyptian blog he co-founded, Misr Digital, Abbas said that “Twitter blocking my account, which documented life in Egypt for 10 years—politics, activism, atrocities, corruption and revolution—is exactly like Hitler burning books. A treasure for researchers has been lost, this is what some of those researchers already told me. Thousands of pictures, videos and live streams from the middle of every crisis in Egypt, with date stamp on them, reporting on people who got tortured, killed or missing.”

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The suspension is particularly ironic given that Twitter said during the Arab Spring that it would not stand for totalitarian attempts to crack down on speech by citizens. “The tweets must flow,” the company said in a blog post in 2011. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

Since then, the company that used to call itself “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party” has come a long way. In response to questions from British MPs about hate speech on the platform this week, Sinead McSweeney—Twitter’s vice president of public policy and communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—said that the company has come to the conclusion that it is no longer possible to stand up for all speech.

“I look back over last five and a half years, and the answers I would have given to some of these questions five years ago were very different,” McSweeney said. “Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill–style philosophy. We’ve realized the world we live in has changed.”

Twitter’s new stance raises the question of what criteria the platform is using to decide which speech to remove or block. Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram, which is said to be close to the government, stated on its site that Abbas’ account was suspended because Twitter was concerned about “his intention to incite violence, which runs contrary to its guidelines.”

Banning Nazi groups and white supremacists may be a popular move, but the flip-side of this newfound desire to regulate speech is that Twitter has now put itself in the position of being an arbiter of what is appropriate commentary.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.