A case of ‘double standards’ in Twitter’s enforcement policy?


With around 330 million ‘monthly active’ users, Twitter is the 12th most popular social network in the world. Created in 2006, the platform allows users to write tweets of up to 280 characters, as well as following other users and retweeting content from a multitude of accounts, from anonymous users to public figures. Twitter is also famous for being an ideal space for debate.

However, certain users have cast doubt on the social network’s neutrality, calling the company out on its ‘double standards’ regarding decisions to delete or suspend users’ accounts and tweets.

A threat to freedom of speech?

One Twitter user describes her experience of having ‘had three accounts deactivated in a completely random manner’. According to the user, her tweets were censored ‘not only by Twitter [but also] by users who did not agree with the argument’. Even though the user did not originally post political content on her account, she went on to use the platform to ‘comment on current affairs as well as to find out about, and share [her] opinion on, the treatment of minorities in France and more generally in Europe and the USA’. She adds that ‘there are some really important issues that we need to talk about, such as racism, homophobia, discrimination, or colonialism. As a young woman of colour, exposed to racism and Islamophobia due to my religion and ethnicity, I feel obliged to fight back against hate speech.’

Another user who identifies as Muslim, pro-union and anarchist also attests to the fact that not all subjects are permitted on Twitter, judging by the administrative retaliation that follows. Similarly to the other users we interviewed, these two young women condemn this infringement of freedom of speech.

Activist tweets or hate speech?

Some feminist activists have expressed their bewilderment, after ironic tweets intended to criticise patriarchal structures were censored, while intentionally sexist tweets were not. One feminist user who tweets under the pseudonym ‘Noemisterieuse’ has had her account permanently suspended after being sanctioned several times for tweets denouncing discrimination against women. However, Twitter noted the ‘absence of any infraction’ in an account reported by Noemisterieuse for hate speech. The user condemns what she considers to be a ‘two-tier response logic’. A transgender woman also tells us that her account was suspended for homophobia, after she used homophobic speech ironically in an attempt to support LGBT causes. Meanwhile, another user, an ex-member of France’s National Front, was not sanctioned for their completely un-ironic homophobic insults.

This bias on the part of Twitter has been noted by several of those interviewed, who claim that while their accounts were suspended, those containing socially acceptable yet highly offensive content were not sanctioned. Beyond the online consequences of account suspension, Noemisterieuse describes the real effects of this ‘forced exile’: users are denied access not only to a means of expression but also to a social institution. She adds that ‘losing years of archives, contacts, and thousands of followers is quite a big deal’.

What criteria for Twitter’s sanctions?

Journalist Mathieu Brancourt reported an account to Twitter after receiving death threats, following his criticism of the decision to consider the sexual assault of the so-called ‘Theo affair’ as an ‘accident’. The threatening tweet wrote ‘[…] you’ll soon be dead meat, fake-ass journalist’. Nevertheless, this message was not considered by Twitter to have violated their regulations.

We contacted Twitter to find out just how this system works, and we received a response claiming an ‘absence of any available spokesperson to respond to [our] questions’. Several links were sent to us, outlining the company’s policy. Via these links you can find an explanation of factors that can lead to sanctions. Among these factors, there is an outline of possible user infractions and the gravity of each infraction. We also found that an account can be sanctioned if ‘the behaviour is directed at an individual, group, or protected category of people’.

Some Twitter users report that their accounts were deleted or suspended after being reported by users sharing hate speech. This was the case for one individual whose account was suspended after a user reported him. The user who reported the account was eventually sanctioned not only by Twitter but also by the police. Do these complaints influence the decision to delete or suspend an account? Beyond simply drawing attention to a situation of online misconduct, Twitter gives particular priority to complaints made if ‘the report has been filed by the target of the abuse or a bystander’. This raises one important question: does Twitter look into the identity of the person reporting the account as well as the reported content? The answer to this question could provide an explanation for some of the above-mentioned cases.

‘Content of […] legitimate public interest’

Another factor taken into consideration when imposing sanctions is if the ‘content [is] a topic of legitimate public interest’ and if it helps to raise public awareness. The source of the content is also taken into account: ‘Some people, groups, organizations and the content they post on Twitter may be considered a topic of legitimate public interest by virtue of their being in the public consciousness’. This provides an explanation for the fact that political figures have the right to post hate speech without being sanctioned, unlike their less famous critics.

Many questions remain unanswered. Who are the employees that make the final decision to suspend or delete an account? Does more than one person look into each case? Do these employees speak the language of the account in question? Do they ever base their sanctions on complaints alone?

In the end, what we have to ask ourselves is what is the role of a social network such as Twitter in ensuring democracy and free speech? It seems that user behaviour is not always judged in the same way, depending on the place they hold within existing power structures, whether that is based on their celebrity or lack thereof, their identity, or their opinions.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay stock images



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