Twitter's Growing Pain: Dealing with Neo-Nazi Hate Speech
With more than a half-billion users worldwide on Twitter, it's likely you can find tweets on nearly anything, including subjects that others find offensive.
But unlike its older social media sibling, Facebook, Twitter explicitly tells its users that content that others may find inflammatory is OK, and Twitter won't ban users for posting it.
The standard for blocking has so far been defined only within the confines of the law -- which, in America, means pretty much everything short of a death threat is OK.
Cracking Down on Nazis
But not so overseas, where free speech isn't as absolute. Because of its history, Germany bans public expression of Nazi ideas. So, Twitter has announced that it will use a micro-blocking tool to stop a particular right-wing organization from reaching Twitter users in that country.
Messages of 140 words or less from @HannoverTicker will still reach followers in the rest of the world, though. The feed comes from Besseres Hannover, or Better Hannover, a group that was banned in September by the Interior Ministry of Lower Saxony.
A letter from the Hannover police to Twitter, which was tweeted by the company's counsel on Wednesday night, said the group has been "disbanded, its assets are seized and all its accounts in social networks have to be closed immediately. The Public Prosecutor (State Attorney's Office) has launched an investigation on suspicion of forming a criminal association."
As of Thursday afternoon, the organization had about 620 followers (the number frequently rises and falls), few of whom appear to be American. The group's tweets are mostly in German, but the most recent, on Thursday, was in English: "Look at this regime: They gossip viciously about china and russia but noone [sic] about them! freedom for #germany! #censorship #injustice #brd."
The Pressure Is On
As it grows, Twitter is likely to come under increasing pressure to deal with offensive speech.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Alan Webber, principal analyst of the Altimeter Group. "I would bet that in the next three years, technology companies will either try to work within the boundaries of laws, or the laws will have to try to play catch-up."
Webber said that as the San Francisco-based microblogging service operates in more foreign countries, it will have to be familiar with their laws, just as Google has found as it runs afoul of privacy laws in the European Union.
"It's no different than global companies that have to know the tax laws in all the countries where they operate," he said.
But some say simply observing laws isn't responsible enough.
Haven for Bigots?
This week, the Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based civil rights group, criticized Twitter for doing nothing to stop a hashtag-thread started in France, #agoodjew, which the organization said caused a barrage of anti-Semitic Tweets.
"Twitter is fast becoming the Internet's distribution platform of choice for bigots who use it to get their messages of hate out in 140 characters or less," said Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, in a statement. "Twitter's terms of service lag far behind other established social media platforms in setting standards which would provide a basis for Twitter to block or remove racist, hate-filled tweets and re-tweets."
The Content Boundaries posted in Twitter's Terms of Service ban specific threats of violence against others, impersonation, trademark or copyright infringement, illegal activity, publishing others' private information, and misuse of Twitter badges for Promoted Tweets or Verified Accounts.
The Report Abusive Behavior section says, "Users are allowed to post content, including potentially inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service."
However, the form for reporting does include buttons for "Someone on Twitter is posting offensive content" and "Someone on Twitter is sending me abusive messages."
The company's reluctance to censor was apparent in the tweet from counsel Alex Macgillivray announcing the blockage of HannoverTicker's account: "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently."
A Twitter spokesman, declining to be identified, defended the company's policies.
"We've made a decision to defend free speech rights in a very broad context," the spokesman said. "That means making tough choices. You have to ask other social networks why they have those policies.
"We choose to have a very vibrant discussion and that means you have to cross boundaries. We rely on users [to moderate themselves]."
In contrast, Facebook's stricter terms of service include verbiage that states: "You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence." Facebook users can report individual status updates from friends, marking them as spam or complaining for a host of reasons ranging from "I don't like this post" to marking it as hate speech.
On occasion, Facebook has removed pages for groups others find offensive, most recently for the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.