July 13, 2019

Atheists Dehumanizing Religious Groups on Twitter

a curious sheep

All the major social media platforms have been receiving increased scrutiny around their policies and the often selective manner in which they enforce them. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and others have been accused of unfairly penalizing conservatives. Getting to the bottom of these accusations can be challenging for many reasons. If a social media platform were to decide, for example, that they would immediately ban anyone who expressed anti-LGBTQ+ slurs, we'd have to expect that most of those getting banned would be social conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and the like. Even if the policy was enforced as described, its impact would disproportionately affect conservatives.

Twitter has been receiving quite a bit of attention for recently expanding their "hateful conduct policy" to include "content that intends to dehumanize, degrade, or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category." The part that has been drawing the most interests from atheists active on the platform is the following specific mention of religion:

We also prohibit the dehumanization of a group of people based on their religion.
This has led to a combination of serious and tongue-in-cheek concerns about how this could impact the ability of atheists to criticize religion on Twitter. The change is still too new for there to be much more than speculation; however, some believe that atheists are already being penalized.

I think there are at least a couple of different ways to look at this move by Twitter. First, I think that most of us would probably agree that we should not dehumanize others. History has shown us that there is often an unacceptably high price for doing so. Tweets comparing Christians with sheep are probably not helping us anyway. Second, I think it is reasonable to be concerned about how Twitter will implement this new policy and whether it may restrict atheists' ability to criticize religion on the platform. Will it be implemented broadly or narrowly? How selectively might it be enforced? Will those who have been found to have violated the policy be informed that they have violated it? None of this is sufficiently clear at this point, and I think it is cause for concern.

In looking closely at Twitter's choice of words, it seems relevant that they chose to refer to the dehumanization of a group of people based on their religion" rather than referring to the dehumanization of individuals. This would suggest that statements which are interpreted as reflecting the dehumanization of "Christians," "Muslims," and other religious groups is what they are looking for. This raises questions about whether statements aimed at "Christianity" or "Islam" would be treated similarly.

Personally, I do not believe that any of us are (or should be) free to say anything we want on Twitter. I should not be allowed to tweet, "I will fucking kill you" to someone who, for all I know, is an 8-year-old. If I do so, I should face consequences. The question is where the line gets drawn between speech that is allowed and that which is declared unacceptable. Twitter is trying to draw that line, and I am not sure it is as clear as it should be.

Based on my reading of their hateful conduct policy, I have seen a number of tweets from atheists that would seem to violate it. Here are just a few examples:

  • "If only we could still feed Christians to lions."
  • "Muslims are all terrorists, and they should be locked up."
  • "Christians are deluded morons. They're all crazy, and we should just get rid of them."
  • "Muslims are animals and should be treated accordingly."

My guess is that atheists who continue to say things like this may have their accounts suspended.

Beyond these more extreme examples, atheist Twitter is filled with name-calling. It is not clear what may happen here. While I have no interest in following atheists who call people names on Twitter, I am not convinced all of them should be banned. It is fairly obvious that many people welcome the name-calling because there are some well-known atheists with over 20,000 followers who regularly call people names on Twitter. It will be interesting to see how Twitter handles this.

Ultimately, I think the most important concern here is whether Twitter will effectively distinguish between expressions of hatred and dehumanization directed at religious individuals or groups vs. criticism directed at religious beliefs. I wish I was more optimistic that they will do so. But since this is something I have seen many atheists struggle with, it would not surprise me if Twitter ends up having trouble as well.

Until Twitter's approach becomes clearer, my suggestions for atheists using the platform are to think before you tweet, to stop dehumanizing religious groups, and skip the name-calling. We ought to be able to provide reasoned criticism of religious ideas and beliefs without attacking the people who hold them.