Twitter’s Censorship Policy Too Inconsistent
March 28, 2016
The Brussels terror attacks earlier this week stoked the hashtag #StopIslam on Twitter and other social media platforms. The phrase was one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags in the hours following the attack until the site removed #StopIslam from its U.S. and Worldwide trending topics.
Twitter announced in early February that it hopes to develop its censorship policies to protect users from harmful content. Its choice to censor the hashtag #StopIslam from its trending topics could be a foreboding glimpse at how Twitter’s attempt to curtail what the company deems hateful conduct could change how Twitter is used as a platform for political dialogue.
According to the Washington Post, #StopIslam owes its popularity not to anti-Muslim sentiments, but to the anti-anti-Muslim responses that are also under the hashtag. Twitter’s censorship of #StopIslam belittles both the criticisms and defenses of Islam, both of which deserve to be seen and heard. By removing #StopIslam, Twitter damaged discussion on both sides of the debate over Islam’s place in terrorism.
Although Twitter removed the hashtag from its trending topics, it allowed tweets containing the hashtag to remain on the site. As the majority of tweets containing the phrase #StopIslam were not attacking much less even criticizing Islam, the body of the trending tweets do not constitute hate speech by Twitter’s definition. It is not clear from Twitter’s speech policy when a topic is too harmful to be trending but not harmful enough for the tweets to be removed entirely.
Not only is Twitter’s interpretation of their own policy questionable, but it has also been inconsistently enforced. Many famous voices on Twitter, including comedian Ricky Gervais, ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie and scientist Richard Dawkins — who prides himself on his “good-humored ridicule of religions” — have used Twitter to attack religious ideology without any kind of disciplinary action.
Twitter’s spotty enforcement brings into question where Twitter draws the line between attacking and criticizing, and at what point online criticism of a religion can be held responsible even for hypothetical violence against people of that religion. Assuming that the purpose of the policy is to restrict speech that would incite violence, it is unclear how a trending topic lends itself more to violence than the tweets.
Although Twitter is a private company that reserves the right to remove content, it should stop involving itself in heated but harmless political discussions for its own sake. If the site continues to censor criticism of only certain ideologies, Twitter will continue making divisive, political choices about what content is too offensive to be trending and will be doing so at the expense of distorting the public dialogue.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 28 print edition. Email Rachel [email protected]