Sorry, Twitter, but you can’t have it both ways

By Mic Wright on July 31st, 2012

Want free speech? Go to Speaker’s Corner and hop on the soap box. Twitter? Facebook? Your blog? Google+?. Sorry, not gonna happen. Every sentiment you sling onto those services goes somersaulting through the web, onto the servers of companies that can be subpoenaed by Government agencies and harassed by extremist activist groups.

Set up a parody account needling a newspaper executive and you could find yourself facing legal action in America. Make an ill-advised or unpleasant comment about a famous person and you could well find yourself on the front page of the Mirror.

Imagine you’re a journalist who has deigned to criticise one of Twitter’s major commercial partners (or even just someone rich they quite enjoy sucking up to). Surely, freedom of the press means your account will be OK, right? As if. Guy Adams of the Independent tweeted repeatedly about NBC – one of Twitter’s partners during the Olympics – and found his account shuttered. Twitter’s stated reason is that Adams tweeted the email address of an NBC executive and the hapless television network complained about the transgression.

Only the email address for NBC Olympics President, Gary Zenkel, the man named in Adams’s tweet, is public and easily accessible via Google. And thanks to NBC’s cack-handed attempt to censor Adams, it has now been published on the Reuters newswire and thousands of newspaper sites and blogs across the world. Once again, dumb executives of the world, I point you towards this informative page on the Streisand Effect.

Adams’s email to Twitter in response to his silencing is also now public. He writes: “I didn’t publish a private email address, just a corporate one, which is widely available to anyone with access to Google… it is no more ‘private’ than the address I’m emailing you from right now. Either way, it’s quite worrying that NBC, whose parent company is an Olympic sponsor, is apparently trying (and, in this case, succeeding) in shutting down the Twitter accounts of journalists who are critical of their Olympic coverage.”

Brilliantly, the best assessment of the situation has come from Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, who tweeted: “The Guy Adams Twitter ban illustrates three tendencies of hegemonic power; 1) hates criticism, 2) takes itself serious 3) no sense of fun.” The brand-enforcing behaviour of that other Olympic bully, LOCOG, also fits Welsh’s law perfectly.

Twitter says NBC received no special treatment but its complaint was almost certainly expedited faster than the wailing and teeth-gnashing of an ordinary mortal. When I was dogged by a malicious Twitter parody, I had to encourage my friends and colleagues to report the account as spam to sink it – and only then fairly temporarily.

As the FWD blog points out, Twitter is very inconsistent in dealing with issues like this. Justin Bieber tweeted a Detroit teenager’s private phone number to over 4.5 million followers and received no censure whatsoever from the social network. Guess it just depends who you are and who you’re cheesing off, doesn’t it?

I was surprised, initially, to hear that Twitter had torpedoed Adams’s account since the site has been so bullish in presenting itself as a staunch defender of free speech. Speaking at the Guardian Changing Media Summit in March – and yes, our irony klaxon is honking at deafening volume too – Twitter’s UK General Manager, Tony Wang, described the company as “the free speech wing of the free speech party”.

The shock! horror! response of Twitter users to the censoring of Adams recalls the queasiness of Google fans since the company tried to do business with China and has been caught repeatedly trampling over privacy concerns in the last few years. Google’s unofficial “Don’t be evil” mantra has turned out to be the least truthful phrase in public life since “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Then again, isn’t the behaviour of Twitter users themselves the most compelling argument for reconsidering radical free speech? In the UK, particularly, there is a growing sense that only a narrow range of opinions and political positions are acceptable: Twitter skews heavily to the Left in Britain and those who choose to express dissenting opinions can often find themselves faced with an avalanche of opprobrium and calls for them to lose their jobs, face legal threats or even come to bloody ends.

Take the hapless Tory MP, Aidan Burley, who tweeted during the Olympic opening ceremony that it was the “most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a Communist state! Welfare tribute next?” He followed this with: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from left multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”

Now, like most people, I believe that Burley was wrong about the ceremony. He continues to show the lack of political nous you would expect from an MP who got stuck in at a Nazi-themed stag do. But, in our democracy, he had every right to express those opinions, however crass; in fact, it’s crucial that MPs should be given the space to misjudge or disregard the public mood if they choose to. That’s the whole point of a representative democracy.

But how is it that we have gone backwards from 1906, when Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously summed up Voltaire’s beliefs in her biography of the great writer: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? In 2012, that sentiment has mutated into a much uglier construction: “I dislike what you say and I intend to tweet about it, hashtag it and retweet until your make a public apology and/or lose your job.”

The quality of public debate is declining. A change in position, based upon a change in the environment or the facts of a case, is instantly a “U-turn”. No celebrity or politician may dare to hold a forthright opinion unless it fits snugly into a narrowly-defined liberal consensus. Unless you stick rigidly to the most bland of statements on Twitter and Facebook, you’ll one day find yourself staring down the mob.

Well, sorry, but Twitter users cannot have it both ways. It’s a funny sort of freedom of speech when it only applies to people you agree with. Howling about a silenced journalist while piling on any user who offends your delicate sensibilities is an indefensible position. With that sort of intellectual incoherence sloshing around its network, it’s no wonder Twitter simply follows its own instincts – and the money.

Yet another sign that Twitter’s shameless and disingenuous courting of activists and extremists is coming back to bite it? Looks that way.