Twitter has introduced a new policy that changes the criteria to verify active accounts. Previously, certification was used to authenticate the user of a popular screen name. However, this scheme allowed popular white supremacists and far-right personalities to use their handles—and Twitter certifications—to promote their ideologies. As a result, Twitter has been criticized for “endorsing” these individuals with the certification check mark and the visual prominence that comes with it.
The social network has confirmed the removal of the certification check mark from the profiles of racist instigators, including those of Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer. Kessler was one of the primary organizers of the Charlottesville rally, and described the death of anti-racism protestor Heather Heyer as “payback time.” It was his account and verification status that sparked the extensive criticism that led Twitter to change its policy. Richard Spencer is a prominent white supremacist that advocates for the creation of a white American ethno-state. He responded to the policy by tweeting, “Is it not okay to be proudly white?”
According to Twitter’s updated policy, actions that could remove an individual’s certification include, “promoting hate and/or violence against, or directly attacking or threatening other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” Included in this policy is the de-verification of accounts conforming to this behaviour, both on and off the website. Users can even lose their verification for supporting organizations or individuals who promote any of the above actions.
Twitter has not banned white supremacist and neo-Nazi accounts altogether. But their decision has re-ignited controversy over whether it should be the mandate of social media companies to take responsibility for the content on their platforms.
The discussion of free speech regulation on social media has been highly publicized of late, with Facebook being widely perceived as culpable for facilitating Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
The new Twitter policy has also generated a conversation about “good democracy” in the age of social media. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all been criticized for failing to prevent the spread of propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech on their platforms. These arguments have been used to describe the crisis of democracy that the world is currently facing.
Such arguments are rooted in viewers’ indiscriminate consumption of content on social media. Namely, that which is propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech. When browsing such platforms, it is necessary for users to be constantly conscious and critical of information; otherwise, they can be vulnerable to manipulation. It is at this point in the user experience that the marketplace of ideas, a concept that can be used to describe good democracy, becomes distorted.
To draw an economic analogy: the marketplace of ideas, characteristic of good democracy, is like a perfectly competitive market. In such a setting, each idea exists on an equal footing, and users have autonomy to choose which ideas to accept, and which to reject. When this market unequally promotes hateful ideas or misinformation, however, the space for ideas becomes more similar to a cartel. In the cartel model, particular ideas, both by virtue of content and endorsement, become more likely to be adopted by the user. In this case, the user loses the ability to objectively decide amongst a spectrum of ideas. This type of manipulation captures the crux of the concern surrounding the implicit authentication associated with a Twitter checkmark.
Many of the arguments against Twitter’s new policy surround the concept of censorship. Laura Loomer, who was also de-verified for her vocal far-right hate speech, wrote, “Being pro free speech isn’t selective. It means you support everyone’s speech, even if you don’t like them.”
However, as a private company, Twitter does not have a legal obligation to protect the free speech of its users. In fact, Twitter is likely to continue this crackdown. The company said Wednesday that it would be “conducting an initial review of verified accounts and will remove verification from accounts whose behaviour does not fall within these new guidelines.”
Those in favour of Twitter’s new policy argue that because the ability to post is maintained, freedom of speech has not been denied. Rather, these account holders are being denied the privilege of an “endorsement” from Twitter. I would add that, by removing the checkmark from these types of accounts, Twitter is effectively endorsing free speech. The company is doing so by removing the cartel-like nature of tweets that have increased prominence because of a checkmark. By bringing these types of tweets back into the realm of a marketplace of ideas, Twitter is making hate speech more benign to its users, enabling it to better act as an arbiter of good democracy.
This policy generates an important precedent for corporate involvement in public conversations. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and our interactions move beyond the bounds of nation-states, we need to observe the policies of private entities whose platforms we use to send and receive information. For our democracy to progress, corporate policies must align with the values of free speech.
However, corporate policies that favour good democracy should not be taken for granted. More objectively, their policies are oriented towards profits. This suggests that policies are likely to change when opportunities for profits shift. Therefore, social media users must continue to demand policies that align the profitability of companies with the principles of good democracy.