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Social media must end arbitrary rule enforcement

Credit: Ik Choi/ Credit: Ik Choi/

Social media has come a long way since the early days of MySpace themes and best friends lists. What was once a place purely for entertainment has quickly become a social hub filled with politically charged content ranging from the far left all the way to the far right. When most of these sites started, it was hard to foresee that they would become the stage for some of the most politicized debates. But now, sites like Facebook and Twitter are in a very crucial position with the ability to silence or empower various kinds of speech now more than ever.

Recently Harvey Weinstein has been under heat for his treatment and sexual assault of female coworkers. He’s been cited as using his authority and power to manipulate young women into doing favors for him. Several accounts tell a story of him asking women to massage him without clothes on and to watch him shower.

One of his victims is Rose McGowan, an actress who was 23 years old at the time of her assault in a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival. A $100,000 settlement was reached with Weinstein in order to “avoid litigation and buy peace.” In light of all the recent victims coming forward, McGowan took to Twitter to voice her thoughts. Her account was then temporarily locked for violating Twitter rules, leaving her unable to tweet, like, or retweet anything for 12 hours. McGowan took to her Instagram pages to share the word of her frozen account.

Twitter was quickly in touch with McGowan the next morning to explain that she had violated their Terms of Service by tweeting an image of an email that contained a private phone number. Twitter has also explained that the decision to lock McGowan’s account was made overnight, meaning that the most prominent decision makers were off the clock. They quickly decided to end the ban hours before it was set to end and deleted the tweet in question.

It is understandable that Twitter would have this policy to protect its users, but what’s not understandable is Twitter’s selective use and enforcement of its Terms of Service. Twitter has publicly defended its decisions to not interfere with President Donald Trump’s account despite his ongoing threats of violence, which violate “Twitter Rules,” a set of guidelines to prevent abusive behavior on the site. They have defended this choice by claiming that it is because of the newsworthiness of Trump’s tweets, a very subjective standard.

If Twitter wants to take the laid back approach of not enforcing a standard, then they should do away with the rules entirely. It’s not fair to pick and choose when they will enforce them, especially when the only time they seem to want to enforce these rules is when they’re violated by women and people of color.

In August of this year, Shahak Shapira, a Berlin-based activist reported over 300 tweets that he claimed contained “absolutely serious threats of violence, homophobia, xenophobia, or Holocaust denial.” Twitter only responded to nine of these tweets and determined that they did not violate its Terms of Service and leaving the tweets intact. Unsatisfied with this answer, Shapira took 30 of the tweets and spray painted them on the sidewalk outside of Twitter’s German headquarters. The tweets contained several racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic slurs.

Twitter responded stating that while they don’t comment on individual accounts, they give users the power to do so through blocking and muting accounts. However, Twitter does step in to block certain accounts. This shows inconsistency of whom the onus should be on to remove hate speech. Many areas of the internet allow hate speech to fester and multiply and without some rules or anything to stop it. The onus should be on Twitter to filter hate speech, not on those that the hate speech targets. It should not be the responsibility of minorities to police what others do, it should be the responsibility of those that have the power to do so.

Twitter is not the only social network known to show this bias. Facebook and Instagram have been known to have their fair share of issues with regulating user content. While images of female nipples have been removed or censored, the sites remain neutral to male nipples. The photo sharing site is notorious for its policies on female nudity, suspending images of female nipples and not male nipples. Free the Nipple activists have campaigned against this by creating the account @genderless_nipples featuring images of nipples that are so close up, it’s hard to determine the gender of the person.

Facebook has also had issues with censoring content. Earlier this year, it was revealed that there were several inconsistencies with Facebook’s methods of deciding what content was allowable. Certain threats did not count because they did not explicitly mention one person that was being threatened, but rather a group of people. Moderators are left so confused and overwhelmed with the volume of work that they often are given just ten seconds to respond to claims. When looking at how influential Facebook was in the spread of fake news in this past election, they cannot afford to take a passive stance with unclear censorship rules.

With great power comes great responsibility, and when Twitter became a political platform, it also had to become the moderator of that platform. It cannot continue to pick and choose when it will be an active participant in the dialogue happening on the platform. If it plans on assuming responsibility to remove abusive language, then it must remove all abusive language, not just the items deemed not newsworthy. If social media sites are going to allow themselves to continue being as pivotal as they are in our sociopolitical lives, they need better regulation of content. It’s not enough to ban only a subset of content that violates the rules. Social media needs to take a stand and decide to crack down on questionable content — or to not care about it at all, which, in this climate, is far too dangerous of a stance to take.