Nazis Got Me Kicked Off of Twitter
How the far right exploits the platform’s clueless approach to hate speech
Last Friday, I spent the evening worrying about what to do about a neo-Nazi internet campaign targeting me for physical violence. This is not the first time something like this has happened to me but the experience is always unnerving. I reached out to some friends and colleagues to brainstorm solutions and lost a bit of sleep.
When I woke up on Saturday, I found that my Twitter account was permanently suspended. As far as I could tell, individuals on the far-right had launched a campaign to mass report my account and got me kicked off the platform.
As a journalist, Twitter is a critical reporting tool for me, and over the course of the weekend I reached out to Twitter a handful of times trying to determine why, exactly, my account had been suspended and what, if anything, I could do to bring it back. Though my account was eventually reinstated, the experience reinforced my understanding of Twitter as a platform of opaque, contradictory, and inconsistent moderation processes.
In retaliation, far right activists, including a racist, misogynist gang called the Proud Boys, used the messaging app Telegram to encourage others to report my reply to Twitter.
The whole saga began in May 2019, when a far-right troll posted a Twitter thread in which he claimed to have uncovered nefarious associations between antifascist activists and journalists who report on the far right, a common tactic employed by the far-right to discredit journalists and incite harassment that often entails death threats. I wasn’t named in this thread, but I am familiar with the work of the journalists and activists who were.
Exasperated, I responded to the troll’s thread using some unsavory language: “What the fuck is wrong with you cunt.” While I stand by my response, it goes without saying that it was upsetting to some on the far right, who likely knew the tweet would be found in violation of Twitter’s vague and inconsistently applied policies about “hateful conduct.” Either way, I paid a price. In retaliation, far right activists, including a racist, misogynist gang called the Proud Boys, used the messaging app Telegram to encourage others to report my reply to Twitter, leading to the permanent suspension of the account I’d used since college. The Proud Boys’ effort to mass report me via one of their Telegram channels was publicized by a handful of anti-fascist Twitter accounts at the time. That Twitter account was never reinstated, and I had to boot up a back-up account.
Months passed without any incident — perhaps in large part because I’ve kept my account mostly on private. Then, on Friday, I became aware that I was included in a new harassment campaign targeting people who have been critical of the far right, and which called attention to individual Twitter accounts. (Out of concern for other individuals involved, I have decided to keep specific details of the incident private.)
When I checked my Twitter account on Saturday morning, I found an email from Twitter alerting me that my current Twitter account had also been reported. The email said: “We have investigated the reported content and could not identify any violations of the Twitter Rules or German law. Accordingly, we have not taken any action at this time.” Clearly action had been taken, though: My account was suspended.
I appealed the suspension, writing to Twitter a few times and laying out the external harassment campaign. Twitter didn’t give me any details that would confirm that the account stemmed from the external harassment campaign, but the campaign launched only a matter of hours before my account was suspended; reports on my account were only of my profile, not of any specific tweets, indicating that whomever was behind the reports is not following me on my private account; and after covering the far right for a few years, one sort of gets used to experiencing harassment on social media when the far right goes after you elsewhere.
In response to my emails on Saturday morning, Twitter sent a reply to inform me that the suspension was “permanent” and furthermore, to accuse me of “managing multiple accounts for abusive purposes.” The response was both infuriating and confounding. Not only was I the one being targeted for abuse, but the only other Twitter account I have ever had was permanently banned months ago following a similar far-right mass reporting campaign.
Three days later, Twitter reversed course; my account was back up and running. The company’s press team did not reply to my requests for comment for this article, and its written policies and rules provide little insight into the mechanisms and processes behind disciplinary actions.
I am not the first journalist Twitter has suspended following apparent far-right incitement or false mass reports. “The fact Twitter’s suspension system is so reckless is absurd,” says Ana Valens, a NSFW reporter for the Daily Dot. “Careers are made and broken by it.”
Valens, who also uses Twitter for work as an adult performer, says that she’s “explicitly seen right-wing trolls announce that they sent a false positive targeting my account around half a dozen times,” adding that she has also been mass reported by other trans people who do not share Valens’ more progressive views on certain LGBTQ issues.
Valens says Twitter has suspended her account twice and in both cases, she was able to lift the suspensions early by contacting Twitter’s press team. She says not everyone who gets mass reported by bad actors has the ear of a press contact at Twitter, though, and explains that her “press contact has since left, so now if I’m banned again I have no fucking clue how to get unbanned.”
Naftali Bennett, a pseudonym used by the editor of Jewish Worker, a left-wing site that publishes commentary on social and political issues, says that far right activists have mass reported the site’s Twitter account leading to suspension at least three times. On the same day that my account was reinstated, the Jewish Worker Twitter account was suspended for 12 hours, too, after the Proud Boys mass-report Telegram channel posted about the Jewish Worker’s tweets. The tweets the Proud Boys were after pertained to the now-defunct neo-Nazi website, Iron March, which recently experienced a massive data leak. Bennett says that the constant harassment “terrifies the shit out of my wife,” who fears for their children’s safety.
Katie Notopoulos, a reporter for BuzzFeed News, saw her account locked for 10 days in 2017 after far-right activists reported a tongue-in-cheek tweet she posted in 2011 about her disdain for white people. Notopoulos says that both Twitter and Facebook’s systems for evaluating reports of abuse lack “nuance” on a large scale: “So [social media moderators] treat someone saying ‘I hate white people,’ which is clearly a joke, the same as actual harmful racist terrors.” She adds that nowadays, she’s “slightly more sympathetic to Twitter’s efforts to clean up harassment” and that “Twitter has actually done some good work in the last two years to clean up its platform.”
For those who rely on Twitter for professional purposes, losing your account permanently can have serious consequences. Getting locked out of an account temporarily amid harassment and threats of violence is, at minimum, frustrating. (It can also be confusing: my first suspended account was quietly reinstated without explanation shortly before this article went live.)
Far right activists understand this. By getting journalists booted from Twitter, they cut us off from a critical means of engaging with our professional community and social circles, while sending threats and other harassment both on and off Twitter.
Twitter’s easily exploited report feature and inconsistent enforcement of policies means that bad actors can hijack the platform’s tools and use them as weapons against the very individuals they were meant to protect. Twitter’s policies around moderating “hate speech” currently lack full acknowledgment of the fact that there’s a difference between swearing at a far-right instigator or making a joke about hating white people, and inciting racist or misogynistic harassment. For that to change, Twitter would have to commit to discerning and enforcing the difference, probably using some combination of improved personnel training and better A.I.
Like many who use it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Twitter is generally a terrible website. There are elements that can be useful or even fun, but the site often seems set up to enable abuse by bad actors and to annoy users with reams of advertisements. But, if I am going to leave the site, I’d like it to happen on my terms.
Update: This piece has been updated to reflect the status of the author’s Twitter account.