February 18, 2016

Twitter's Trust and Safety Council

This post is not about whether Republican front runner Donald Trump is a racist, xenophobe, or whatever else. I suspect that the majority of my readers are convinced that these labels probably apply to Mr. Trump and most of his supporters. While I have my doubts that he really believes much of what he has said and that these are the only factors driving people who support him to do so, I'm not terribly interested in attempting to persuade anyone otherwise. What I'd like to address here instead are some of the implications of recent efforts we have seen to police social media in order to prevent users from encountering views they consider to be racist, xenophobic, or otherwise offensive.

Twitter recently announced the formation of a new "Trust and Safety Council" that is being applauded by many on the regressive left and characterized as Orwellian by many cultural libertarians. Much of the controversy centers around who has been appointed to the council and the likely implications of their involvement on users' ability to express themselves freely. Given that some of those picked for the council have histories of working to shut down discourse they do not like, these concerns strike this observer as valid. It looks like the days of Twitter being a free speech platform may soon be little more than a fond memory, and that would be a real shame.

What does any of this have to do with Mr. Trump? I'm getting to that. One of the concerns that has been raised about those selected for Twitter's council is their lack of political diversity and the over-representation of authoritarian leftists. Suppose that the majority of the council were to share the opinion that Mr. Trump and many of his supporters were racists and xenophobes. Might this be the sort of expression on which they would attempt to crack down? Given some of the efforts we have seen from the authoritarian left, it is not much of a stretch to suspect that expressing support for Mr. Trump or his views could be framed as "abuse," "harassment," or even "hate speech." Even if you despise Mr. Trump, that should make you nervous. And now there are some reports that something like this is taking place.

Some Twitter users will decide that this is perfectly okay with them. They may even welcome this sort of social engineering. After all, it seems unlikely to interfere with their ability to express themselves. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we should note that criticizing religion and promoting secularism are likely to be perceived negatively by many Twitter users. What is to prevent them from deciding that this sort of speech is also a form of "abuse," "harassment," or worse? How long will it be before Twitter begins banning users who mock Muhammad...or Jesus? Does anybody really believe that there aren't plenty of people on Twitter who would love to scrub the service of atheists and skeptics?

If we are going to go down the road of making hurt feelings the metric by which we define "abuse" and "harassment," we will eventually need to contend with creationists and assorted woo peddlers whining that our skepticism and mockery of their beliefs should bring penalties. I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to see that happen.

Perhaps this is all overblown, the council won't amount to anything, or those running Twitter will realize their mistake and reverse course. I hope so, but I'll admit that it makes me nervous that at least one of the members has repeatedly equated criticism of her work with "harassment."