Willem IV- Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, stated on June 7, 2021, that it was “suspending Twitter indefinitely” from their country’s internet over Twitter deleting a tweet by President Buhari and its continued allowance of tweets by Biafran independence activists. (Full disclosure, we support Biafran independence.)
Twitter responded by arguing that access to “a free and open internet” is a “basic human right”, a “right” this company, although private, doesn’t value internally (Twitter is not a free speech platform). The truth is that Twitter is a private company and a private company banning access on the basis of political opinions, as Twitter is alleged to do, is not the same thing as Nigeria’s government banning a private platform from its internet.
But the moral high ground is lost. True, it may be legally defensible for Twitter to ban anyone it wishes to ban, but when Twitter experiences the ban hammer from governments that use the same language Twitter uses to justify its bannings, and when that justification is thin, no tears are shed.
If Twitter relents and restores the deleted tweet by Nigeria’s President and begins cracking down on Biafran dissent, it makes its public image worse. It would have to reinstate Trump at that point!
Twitter presents ifself as a neutral platform. But this is a myth, even if it is the true intent. No human being can be neutral. What is more, the staff, especially moderators, of that platform lack any kind of ideological or philosophical diversity. Most tend to fall into the left-authoritarian spectrum. Twitter pretending it doesn’t take sides is setting itself up for easy fault-finding because the weight of judgement tends to run against the orthodoxy of its staff, and that orthodoxy cuts against people right and left of the political divide, by the way.
This is Twitter’s right. They began as an essentially free speech platform and have evolved into something like a hybrid between a publisher, gatekeeper of “acceptable content”, and limited free speech zone within a spectrum of acceptable orthodoxies but with limited tolerance for dissent. All of this is perfectly legal. It may eventually prove to drive people away from the platforms like Twitter to alternatives, if or when something truly viable comes along, but so far their bottom line hasn’t suffered due to their shift away from pure unadulterated free speech on a strict First Amendment basis. The people paying the bills like it and the audience hasn’t exactly turned away wholesale.
It used to be, if the speech was protected by the First Amendment, it was protected on Twitter. As a corporation, Twitter decided to bend to its clients, namely investors and advertisers, to define the limits of speech it would allow more narrowly. As the rules became more extensive, the ability of moderators to keep up with all the needed moderation has fallen behind.
This has resulted in inconsistencies and gross mistakes, banning content labeled as false which later turned out to be true, while allowing grossly false content to remain unmoderated and unchallenged. Users whose views run afoul of a narrowing orthodoxy, more reflective of a left-authoritarian staff than a broad cross-section of perfectly civil and legitimate beliefs, find that policies about hate speech, racism, bullying, and all the other triggers, become easy excuses to justify bannings.
Most people don’t want those things, but the definition of what constitutes those things is broad and its enforcement is opaque. And that is the problem. Nobody is seriously defending actual racism, hate speech, and bullying. But the instances of where these rules are applied and not applied have been questionable, mostly because it wasn’t obvious or evenly applied.
If you cannot enforce a standard evenly, consistently, or fairly in a way that everyone can easily understand, then you have a governance problem. You also have an optics problem in the international community.
Unlike Twitter, who tend to read the standards and norms of a free and open internet in a less than objective and consistent manner, always in a way that favors their particular ideological bent, we absolutely support Twitter acting as a private, corporate, world power pursuing its aims and interests. Twitter is now seen as a not only such a “soft power”, able to sway election outcomes, but, for some world powers, a potential threat.
In becoming a platform for limited free speech whose owners clearly push their own ideology, which is their right, Twitter is no longer seen as neutral and is seen as a player in its own right. There is a reason the Red Cross steers clear of politics; it doesn’t want governments to view it as a potential competitor or ally to the opposition.
Twitter isn’t a country. But it does wield soft power on the world stage and is, in a new kind of way, more of a world power than many countries. Twitter definitely has its own policy goals based on its own ideology, which it pushes on its users through content, through programs and initiatives, through charity, and through its very concepts of what is or what isn’t acceptable speech. All of these things are, as much as Twitter likes to pretend some form of absolute a priori objectivity, ideological value judgments not shared by most people or most governments.
Twitter as a free speech platform could not be said to be for any given side. Through taking this new tac, as a limited free speech platform and partial publisher which makes ideological statements as if they are objective truth nobody should object to, Twitter no longer has the same kind of neutral status as the Red Cross deserves.
As noted, all this speech moderation is perfectly legitimate, even if a growing plurality of people, whose speech almost no normal person thinks should be banned, find the platform to be useless. Eventually it may happen that Twitter’s list of banned users reaches parity with those left standing.
Either way, when Twitter touts a human right to access a free and open internet it is rank hypocrisy on a moral basis, even if legally it’s not the same thing for Twitter to ban a country’s President as it is for a country to ban Twitter. Although a country can choose what businesses operate in its borders.
Twitter could have argued that banning access to a private platform that users who wished to associate with violates a right of free association. But pretending Twitter operates as a “free and open internet” in its culture, content promotion, and governance system is laughable.
We have never touted a free speech platform. We don’t object to Twitter choosing who can use its platform, even if we think their governance is sorely lacking because they have too few moderators, a stunning lack of diversity, too many rules that are opaque in their meaning, and too many users. Twitter should have transitioned to a more moderated platform more reflective of its own orthodoxy by hiring and training many more moderators and by enacting very clear, transparent rules that leave little doubt as to interpretation.
But claiming that it is a basic human right to access a free and open internet, when all your “qualifiers” for acceptable speech tend toward opaqueness or a particular ideological orthodoxy, shows a lack of self-awareness. If people have a “right” to access Twitter why has Twitter banned speech that was not otherwise illegal, that, if Twitter were a government platform, would be protected speech?
As an example, Twitter bans anyone who defies or argues against it’s supposition that “gender is a social construct.” This ideological statement is most definitely not agreed to by almost every other person around the world, but Twitter insists it is hate speech to disagree. Its reasoning lacks logical depth and this kind of stance clearly places it within a narrow ideological camp. In one day, if all Twitter users decided to post their own views on this, perhaps 70% would be banned.
Imagine if #saywhatgenderis became a thing. Twitter would suppress it from trending, probably block it, and ban the ring leaders. This is hardly the kind of company that can claim to be a champion of free speech!
People do have a right to free speech and a free and open internet. They don’t have a right to access Twitter, which is not a free speech platform and which isn’t a public space. Twitter has every right to make its own ideological statement on gender something you get banned for disagreeing with. But the consequences are that people and governments no longer feel any moral obligation to treat Twitter as anything but a corporate power on the world stage with an agenda that goes well beyond just defending free speech.
A government can ban certain businesses from its country, they have the sovereign right. Twitter has no standing under international law, it is a private platform, and no government has to allow any business to operate in its borders, whether physically or virtually. Because Twitter has made itself a player with its own agenda, it is now being treated like an external power trying to effect the political climate within another country, something governments are loath to allow.
If Twitter was a free speech platform, like it used to be, warts and all, then it could make a moral case against actions by governments, such as India, Russia, Nigeria, and China to ban free speech. It could claim to have no agenda, but already, in its gender ideology, Twitter is showing it wants to control the very narrative in a very important political issue for every country on the planet.
Twitter, though a private company, albeit with more money than some countries and more power too, isn’t a champion of free speech on its platform. It doesn’t have to be.
To claim a moral high ground as a champion of a free and open internet, which necessarily involves an internet where all save criminal speech is protected, is just not going to fly. No country is going to threaten to sanction Nigeria over this move, the moral basis of doing so doesn’t exist.
But let’s be clear, Abuja isn’t protesting Twitter for banning the speech of its President. All its complaints about Twitter allowing Biafra activists to speak freely, accusing them of terrorism, are authoritarian excuses that are worse than Twitter banning its users. Perhaps if said activists said gender is determined at birth and isn’t a social construct, Twitter would have banned them. Instead, they rail against the excesses of Buhari’s security thugs and his allowing the Fulani herdsman to terrorize the land.
Abuja wants Twitter to ban more speech and sees the fact Twitter protects its own orthodoxy from too much dissent as hypocrisy. Clearly, the logic runs, Twitter isn’t protecting these Biafran activists because it stands for a free and open internet. Twitter isn’t banning this speech, which is quite pointedly against the Buhari regime, because it wants to undermine Nigeria’s stability. It’s personal. It’s not principled.
This is nonsense, but abandoning its former stance for free speech and resorting to a very sloppy and opaque application of limited speech rules, while making dissent from their gender ideology bannable, has opened Twitter up to such attacks. When American platforms argue that China should let them in, China can reply, “we are doing to our internet what you do to your platform.”
Is it the same thing? No. But the moral difference between a private platform that claims to be for free speech banning otherwise legal speech or dissent from its ideological statements on gender and a government claiming to be looking out for its people keeping private platforms out whose services would benefit those people isn’t too far in the eyes of many.
We propose the creation of diverse niche communities, not free speech platforms, within a pluralistic ecosystem. We remain convinced that private communities paid for by their subscribers and not beholden to corporate sponsors are the cure for top-down, poorly governed mega platforms. We argue that smaller, paid subscription based communities built around niche interests and shared ideas or what have you, and connected via API hooks within a larger, decentralized digital ecosystem, are the future of the internet.
Twitter is wrong insofar as it cannot claim to be a free speech platform or that is holds the moral high ground. On the other hand, the authoritarians who run the Nigerian federal government are far, far worse. They are defying Twitter’s refusal to become even less of a free speech platform by banning everyone the Buhari regime hates.
In this particular case, Twitter is right to defend the free speech of the Biafran activists, while the deletion of Buhari’s tweet may have been impolitic, it was probably deserved (the man is an unscrupulous liar). But claiming that everyone has a right to its platform is morally laughable. The difference is, Twitter can only ban you, Buhari wants to use violence to silence the Biafran activists.