At the New York Daily News: Twitter’s debate-chilling problem: The social media site’s arbitrary policies allow foreign nations to censor American — often without explanation

Aug 16, 2019 | Featured

Dr. John Lott has a new piece at the New York Daily News about Twitter locking the CPRC Twitter account.

I am the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, whose account Twitter locked because it tweeted a link to a Daily News article that I wrote about Twitter locking my personalaccount. Twitter informs me that the account was locked because the News article contains quotes from the New Zealand mass killer, and New Zealand and Australia have laws against sharing the manifestos of shooters.

As a Twitter representative emailed me: “Due to the safety of Twitter users and regulations abroad, Twitter does not allow linking to content that includes excerpts of manifestos of mass shooters.” Earlier automated responses from Twitter had offered no such information, with the explanation field left blank. I was able to use a connection to ask what was happening, but other victims of Twitter’s censorship may not even get an explanation.

The explanation seems simple enough, but there is a problem. Lots of other accounts have tweeted a link to that same News piece, including the New York Daily News itself to its over 700,000 followers. More than 80 other accounts retweeted the link, some with many more followers than the CPRC. But none of these other accounts have been locked or had posts removed for linking to the article.

The Twitter representative’s only possible explanation was that someone “reported” the CPRC tweet, but that no one reported the other accounts’ tweets. “Specifically, the new Australian law prompted Twitter to take a very aggressive approach on materials related to Christchurch. Companies can be fined up to 10% of their annual revenue.” The Twitter representative told me that once someone reports a tweet that violated those countries’ rules, they were powerless to ignore the complaint because the Australian and New Zealand governments would have been alerted to the violation.

So, with both of my Twitter accounts locked, I did something that I had never considered doing before. I asked people to report those tweets that had linked to my News piece. But nothing happened.

Why weren’t the other accounts treated similarly? Twitter did not explain that and merely stated that its decision is final.

Unfortunately, the problem is much broader than my Daily News piece. A quick search reveals what seems like many hundreds of newspaper articles, as the Twitter representative wrote me about our account, extensively “linking to content that includes excerpts of manifestos of mass shooters” and many thousands of tweets linking to those articles.

A Kansas City Star article quotes the New Zealand killer’s manifesto at length on 12 occasions. But the article focuses on the killer’s racism and claims, “Modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders.” By contrast, my piece mentioned that the killer “frequently disparages minorities, but his racism stems from environmentalist concerns.”

The Star calls the killer a “right-winger” several times, I argued that he was in no way “right-wing.” Perhaps the censors at Twitter don’t like to admit that a socialist/environmentalist who hates capitalism can also be a racist.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was among the many whose tweets linked to a Star article claiming that it proved “New Zealand shooting suspect says in manifesto he was inspired by violent U.S. extremism.”

Nor is it just the American media that extensively quotes from the killer’s manifesto. Canada’s National Post used 13 quotes and concentrated on the killer’s racism without citing the manifesto’s explanations concerning overpopulation and high minority birth rates.  

The Twitter representative I spoke to said that any quotes from the manifesto would violate Australian and New Zealand censorship rules. But these and many other news articles shared more quotes from the manifesto than did my piece for The News.

But if the problem is a general “linking to content that includes excerpts of manifestos of mass shooters,” what is Twitter to make of the New York Times’ Sunday article that extensively, if selectively, quoted from the El Paso killer’s manifesto? The article tried to link the killer’s discussion about immigration to similar words about illegal immigration used by conservative media stars. Regarding the article, its lead author, political reporter Jeremy Peters, tweeted: “The overlap between the El Paso killer’s rhetoric and what’s considered mainstream conservative rhetoric will make you stop cold.”

The CPRC’s tweet was about how the El Paso killer said “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.” But why is Peter’s tweet and article deemed acceptable and the CPRC’s not?

It is scary that a government halfway around the world can censor completely accurate American political debates, effectively interfering in our democratic process. It is still scarier when this censorship is selectively applied to tweets by conservatives.

The piece is available here.