Twitter hasn’t been having a very good time of it lately: turmoil in the company’s executive ranks — including the recent departure of the chief operating officer and the head of Twitter’s media unit — has raised concerns about deeper issues and the service’s lackluster growth. But the real-time information network has other fires to put out as well, including a fear that the company’s global and financial ambitions may be stifling its previous commitment to free speech.
Twitter recently suspended the account belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after the group — which claims to represent radical Sunni militants — posted photographs of its activities, including what appeared to be a mass execution in Iraq. The service has also suspended other accounts related to the group for what seem to be similar reasons, including one that live-tweeted the group’s advance into the city of Mosul.
It’s not as though the action against ISIS comes in a vacuum either: in recent months, Twitter has removed or “geo-censored” tweets in Turkey, Ukraine and Russia at the request of governments in those countries. Twitter obviously has to deal with the law in the countries in which it does business — but every time it takes such a step, it engages in a little more censorship, and each time it loses a little bit of the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” goodwill it built up during the Arab Spring.
(Twitter does sometimes restore the content it blocks: on Tuesday, the service restored access to tweets and accounts in Pakistan that it blocked at the request of the government there, saying: “We have reexamined the requests and, in the absence of additional clarifying information from Pakistani authorities, have determined that restoration of the previously withheld content is warranted”).
Who decides which accounts to censor?
Part of Twitter’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be seen as a tool for terrorist groups, and yet its decision to police this kind of behavior forces it to make choices about whose speech is appropriate and whose isn’t — so the al-Shabaab account has to go, but the Taliban can continue to have an account, and Hamas (which is categorized as a terrorist organization by many groups and governments) was able to post what many saw as a specific threat of violence directed towards Israel during the attacks on the Gaza Strip last year, and Twitter didn’t appear to mind.
But the larger issue is that whether or not accounts like ISIS are posting troubling or disturbing — or even politically sensitive — images and other information, there’s arguably a public interest in having them continue to do so. As Self-trained British journalist and weapons expert Brown Moses has pointed out a number of times, images and videos posted by such militant or even terrorist groups provide an important physical record of what is happening in these countries, and also allow journalists like Moses to verify events. Removing them, as Facebook has done with pages related to Syrian chemical-weapon attacks, makes it harder to do that.
Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior noted in a piece she wrote for Al Jazeera last year — about a similar move to suspend an account belonging to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab — that one of the other frustrating things about Twitter’s moves in these kinds of cases is that the company provides very little transparency about what it is doing or why. For the most part, the only response is a standard disclaimer about how Twitter doesn’t comment on specific accounts or users.
Twitter may be more focused on building up its user base and satisfying the desires of the financial community or the investors in its stock, but that doesn’t mean it can ignore the other elements of its business — and that includes its alleged commitment to maintaining an environment for free speech.