Is Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council a Front for Censorship?

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Early in February, Twitter announced the formation of a Trust & Safety Council, and the move has caused a good deal of controversy, with some online commentators going so far as to wonder if the council is a portent of forthcoming censorship of “non-approved” views. Online censorship is a perennially debated topic, and the creation of the Council is sure to add fuel to the fire.

What Is the Trust & Safety Council?

According to Twitter’s announcement, the Council is “a new and foundational part of our strategy to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter.” This language is echoed in the rest of the announcement, with Twitter emphasizing its commitment to “ensur[ing] people can continue to express themselves freely and safely.”

You can see the full list of Council members in the announcement, but it includes names like Anti-Bullying Pro, Anti-Defamation League, Center for Democracy and Technology, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, Dangerous Speech Project, GLAAD, Feminist Frequency, Love 146, NetSafe, Samaritans, and The Wahid Institute.

“[M]ore than 40 organizations and experts from 13 regions” are represented on the Council, which Twitter says will help the social network focus on creating a safe and healthy online environment in which people can create, shape, and share opinions.

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Exactly what role the Council will play in Twitter’s strategy moving forward is unclear. Will they help set guidelines for acceptable speech on the social network? Will they alert Twitter to offensive and abusive tweets? According to Twitter, “As we develop products, policies, and programs, our Trust & Safety Council will help us tap into the expertise and input of organizations at the intersection of these issues more efficiently and quickly.”

But what that means in practice is anyone’s guess.

A Controversial Decision

As you might expect, the creation of the Trust & Safety Council has been met with a variety of responses. Damon Beres at Huffington Post calls it “A step in the right direction.” Mark Lelinwalla at Tech Times thinks that Twitter “aligning itself with such organizations and groups that work in these areas regularly seems like a good idea.”

And it’s a well-known fact that Twitter is a pretty vicious place. Stories of harassment are everywhere, and contain some some very troubling trends. Twitter certainly isn’t the only social network that sees this sort of behavior, but even former CEO Dick Costolo admitted that Twitter was particularly bad at handling it. So taking assertive action against Twitter abusers is definitely a good thing.

But many groups are worried about what the Council represents. The #RIPTwitter hashtag, which was popular after Twitter announced that it was considering raising the tweet character limit and algorithmically sorting users’ timelines, got another spike after the announcement of the formation of the Council.

What’s really set a lot of people off is that the Council is made up of a rather homogenous mix of organizations. Andrew Puddephatt sums it up nicely:

With the exception of a few (excellent) groups who work on free expression, the overwhelming majority of members are focused, in one way or another, on the restriction of hate speech. While the work these groups do is no doubt valuable and important, their numerical dominance on a body tasked with finding the “right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power” seems problematic.

He also points out that the majority of the groups are based in the US, and those that aren’t are mostly based in the geographic North, casting doubt on their ability to properly analyze and regulate censorship and hate speech across the world.

The Council also has a decidedly left-leaning bias, and includes a number of groups that are rather controversial; some online commentators question whether or not the groups convened are actually in favor of free speech. Anita Sarkeesian‘s Feminist Frequency, the Dangerous Speech Project, and the Anti-Defamation League, for example, have been criticized as being overly aggressive in their quests to fight harassment and hate speech.

https://twitter.com/PolitiBunny/status/697139138844200960

The makeup of the Council has led many to question Twitter’s announced intention to “strike the right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power,” but with little or no indication of what the members of the Council will have the power to do, there’s no way to ameliorate this controversy.

The Wider Discussion

While much of the criticism of the Trust & Safety Council is coming from the right, the issue is indicative of a wider discussion that’s taking place across the Internet, one that’s centered around free speech and the for-better-or-worse equalizing influence of the Internet. Should we, as readers, be given free reign to discuss, debate, and otherwise communicate in online comments?

A number of sites around the Internet, including big names like Popular Science and CNN, have disallowed comments on their articles, and each decision has been met with skepticism and hostility (as well as support and praise, in many cases). The freedom of readers to comment on articles is, we seem to say, a cornerstone of online debate. And what good is the Internet if we can’t freely discuss, debate, and criticize the content on it?

In many cases, it seems that some of the biggest players in the online media game target people who disagree with the message or viewpoint put forth on their site, putting them in danger of having their status revoked, as when controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulos had his blue “verified” check mark removed from his Twitter account; or their accounts suspended, similar to @TrustySupport‘s suspension after documenting Twitter’s non-response to abuse and harassment; or simply having their posts deleted, as has been reported on The Guardian and Facebook.

Of course, there’s always another side to the story: Yiannopoulos was accused by some readers of violating Twitter’s hate speech rules, and Twitter said that @TrustySupport was suspended in error. Some people who say that their right-leaning comments have been deleted from other sites have posted inflammatory things in the past, calling into question whether or not their deleted comment was really fit to post in the first place.

Social media has always been viewed — at least in the countries where it’s not heavily censored — as a place for people to exchange information and viewpoints, to engage in debates over issues and be exposed to new points of view. But many people with conservative views say that this isn’t happening, and that they’re being censored out of social and other media (the big names in which are generally left-leaning). The makeup of Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council certainly doesn’t do much to dispel that fear.

What Does the Future Hold?

We’ve already seen the potential for online debate curtailed in the rollback of commenting opportunities on some (both left- and right-leaning) media websites, but Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council has a lot of people nervous. If the #RIPtwitter hashtag is any indication, there’s a significant number of people who will consider leaving Twitter altogether if the Council starts taking action that they think curtails their free speech rights (of course, whether their free speech rights are being violated is up for debate).

Would a large number of people jumping ship on Twitter serve as a warning to other sites? It seems like it might, though the tenacity with which mainstream media sites push the narrative that they want people to hear is impressive. It’s possible that online debate has seen its heyday, and that uncensored, “unmanaged” debate will soon be relegated to more open forums. The Dark web, of course, is also a place where unpopular or minority views can freely be expressed.

Freedom of information exchange is often viewed as one of the core values of the Internet, but are we really free to say what we want? And does the appointment of Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council suggest that maybe things aren’t as free as we thought? This is a complicated issue with a lot of sides, and we want to know what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credits:finger on her lips by Vladimir Gjorgiev via Shutterstock

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