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Twitter has a fix for its Nazi problem—but it won’t use it
Does Twitter’s new update just put a softer circle around its harassment issues?
Twitter recently rolled out an updated UI that, among other minor changes, replaced square avatars with round ones. Users seemed to be confused on one point about the update, though: What’s being done about the Nazis?
Indeed, Twitter is beset with actual Nazis who are neither subtle nor ashamed of their affiliations, and the company hasn’t done much to drive them off. White supremacist leader Richard Spencer, who led a “heil Trump” chant after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, was briefly suspended, but his account has since been reinstated—and now it’s verified.
Other verified right-wing accounts, like Tim “Baked Alaska” Treadstone, make anti-Semitic gas chamber jokes with no consequences:
Verified "alt-right" leader Baked Alaska (Tim Treadstone), who just held a so-called "free speech" rally, has come out as a literal Nazi pic.twitter.com/dqJyORgt8g
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) June 18, 2017
There’s also the American Nazi Party, which doesn’t have a verified account but continues to shitpost racist memes to its 12,000 followers, with no intervention from Twitter.
And that’s not to mention the dozens of smaller accounts with names like “Kill All Jews” and “Hitler Was Right.”
— The Outline (@outline) June 16, 2017
In November 2016, Twitter started rolling out new anti-harassment tools that could theoretically be used to fight Nazis on the platform, including the option to report an account for “hateful conduct” and cite up to five tweets as evidence. Twitter’s “hateful conduct policy” bans tweets that target people for their race, ethnicity, or national origin, which certainly sounds like it would cover Nazism.
Yet it’s often the Nazis themselves who benefit from the ability to report harassment on Twitter. Users who publicly challenge Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-right, or their associates find their accounts quickly suspended, silenced by a barrage of harassment reports. Being banned for fighting with Nazis has become such a common occurrence that it’s now a meme.
The good news is Twitter is figuring out how to protect people from abuse. The bad news is the main people they want to protect are Nazis https://t.co/Ue1lw6H361
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) June 18, 2017
Request: please get rid of the Nazis on this website instead of banning their victims
— thomas (@trappleton) June 19, 2017
Me: Can you ban this verified nazi for telling me to kill myself?
Twitter: No you said fuck once
Twitter: Icons are circles now
— Flea (@Flea) June 15, 2017
Looks like I've been suspended from tweeting non followers for calling a nazi a cunt. I think that calls for a celebration.
— Colin P (@ColinTDF) June 20, 2017
I once threatened to kill michael rapaport with my dog with no consequence but now you can't be rude to a nazi without getting suspended
— favstar flav (@swaggy_2_dope) June 20, 2017
Literal Nazi : verified
Saying Fuck a couple times, restricted or suspended accounts. @Twitter logic.
— TJ (@Wpgtjross) June 20, 2017
Me: Hey @TwitterSafety? What's up with the ACTUAL Nazi posting hate?
Twitter: You called someone stupid
Also Twitter: YOU'RE suspended pic.twitter.com/C7GgEeoZMO
— Barry Bearenstein (@JustABear614) June 19, 2017
Me: What's up with that Nazi "Kill Kikes" account?
Twitter: Freedom of Speech
Also Twitter: You're suspended for calling someone stupid.
— Barry Bearenstein (@JustABear614) June 16, 2017
Bad news. The trove already has a verified twitter account and I got suspended for telling it to fuck off. https://t.co/FID75vCB9y
— Caesar Salad Hero (@Palle_Hoffstein) June 20, 2017
In many cases, people are telling the Nazis to “fuck off” or “go fuck themselves,” which makes it easy to counter-report them for profanity. That’s not always the case, though. Here’s one example of a guy who called the American Nazi Party “dumb stupid idiots whose butts smell”—no foul language involved—and ended up with a 24-hour suspension.
Totally worth it…. pic.twitter.com/USMNdY1u8J
— SquidwrdTentaclePorn (@Type1DIABEETUS) June 18, 2017
This is perhaps the most ridiculous example of Twitter’s backward Nazi fix, but it’s not the worst. Daniel Sieradski, an Occupy Wall Street activist and “Antifa’s most prominent Jew,” was permanently suspended for reasons that are still unclear, but he believes he was targeted by Baked Alaska and his alt-right fans.
Baked Alaska started a campaign against Sieradski, who went by @selfagency on Twitter, after Sieradski suggested Baked Alaska was a Nazi who needed to be “punched.”
— Baked Alaska™ (@bakedalaska) June 1, 2017
In the process of the Antifa-vs.-alt-right feud, Sieradski’s personal information was exposed and his family was allegedly threatened.
— Owen R. Broadhurst (@OwenRBroadhurst) June 8, 2017
— Rabbi Daniel Burstyn (@danielburs) June 8, 2017
How dare yall! Daniel got doxed by them and Nazis threatened him and his entire family! He's always getting threatened on here. You allow it
— Addy Lerer (@addylerer) June 8, 2017
"Hey maybe punch racists"
"We're going to kill your entire family"
Yup, sounds identical to me.
— The Lower Lifeform™ (@AGreenAutumn) June 2, 2017
His account is still offline, and a backup account he briefly used has been deleted. His public Facebook profile has also disappeared. Meanwhile, tweets threatening violence against Sieradski and his children remain online:
Lmao don't dish out what you can't handle. You want to threatened others with violence?
Then your kid gets a kicking.
— Christopher B (@RectalThreat) June 2, 2017
Sieradski did not respond to requests for comment from the Daily Dot.
Between cases like this and the people who have waited months for Twitter to take down Nazi death threats against them, it seems clear that Twitter’s current system of reporting abuse is not working.
“Get rid of the Nazis” is not a specific recommendation, though. Twitter should do something, but the solutions aren’t cheap or easy. Automated suspensions based on user reports seem to have backfired. Human moderators are expensive, and it might be impossible for them to read every report and track down every Nazi on the platform. What should be done?
One argument that’s been gaining traction recently is that Twitter already has a Nazi filter—the company just needs to turn it on.
Twitter has the capability to “withhold” certain tweets in specific countries, allowing them to comply with local laws while avoiding worldwide censorship. For legal reasons, Twitter users in Germany and France don’t see Nazi tweets and accounts.
Some have suggested that Twitter should just turn on that filter worldwide, or that a third-party autoblocker service could use the “blocked in Germany” flag to identify tweets and accounts to block.
Since Twitter automatically blocks nazis in Germany, write an autoblocker service that runs in Germany and checks accounts
— Katelyn Gadd (@antumbral) June 19, 2017
— ANTHONY OLIVEIRA (@meakoopa) June 19, 2017
Reminder that Twitter can identify Nazis PERFECTLY WELL, because THEY HIDE THEIR ACCOUNTS IN GERMANY AND FRANCE.
— ǝuuǝıɹpɐ (@adrienneleigh) June 19, 2017
For example, this is what users in Germany see when they try to visit the American Nazi Party’s Twitter page:
I’m not even seeing the avatar here. pic.twitter.com/1fhakQDYSB
— Alexander Repty (@arepty) June 19, 2017
This approach might not work as a catch-all, though: German and French laws could be too broad, or not broad enough, and they might miss important context. Those countries’ bans on Nazism don’t necessarily parse the many shades of neo-Nazism being expressed in America right now. Plenty of unabashed white supremacists, anti-black and anti-Muslim groups, and people who want to turn America into a “white ethnostate” also explicitly claim they’re “anti-Nazi.”
Germany's interpretation of the Wiederbetätigungsverbot is much too strict and has no sense for context
— David (@MechMK1) June 20, 2017
Even banning outspoken Nazis is more complicated that it looks. Expanding the filter would effectively apply French or German law to users in other countries, which opens Twitter up to criticism for impeding free speech. Twitter is a private company that doesn’t owe anyone a platform, but in some ways, it’s in the same predicament as its users when it comes to Hitler fanboys. It can stand up to Nazis, but the Nazis are loud and at least somewhat organized, which means they can make challenging them very annoying.
Twitter has said it believes that “the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the Tweets must continue to flow,” which makes sense when the flow of the tweets is crucial to your bottom line.
The most cynical interpretation of the situation is that it’s not worth Twitter’s time to solve the Nazi problem because Nazis drive controversy, which drives engagement. People might be using Twitter to complain about how infested Twitter is with white supremacists, but at least they’re using Twitter!
IMO: They're choosing not to do it because conflict is the business model – keep all the eyes on the screen, no matter the cost.
— Michael (@OmanReagan) June 20, 2017
Twitter declined to comment to the Daily Dot on the viability of using “withheld in Germany” as the basis for some kind of Nazi filter. The company pointed instead to its hateful conduct policy and noted an increase, since the November 2016 update, in the percentage of hate speech reports that are reviewed in a timely manner.
“Twitter … sped up its dealing with notifications, reviewing 39 percent of them in less than 24 hours, as opposed to 23.5 percent in December,” the company reminded us.
Twitter did not comment on the widespread sentiment floating around its site now that those reports benefit white supremacists more than their targets.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.