Twitter Should Tread Carefully When Addressing ‘Hateful’ Content

Twitter announced last week it has begun to enforce new rules meant to reduce abusive, hateful, violent content. Of course, the intent is good; and Twitter has every right to host whatever content it chooses. It is free to encourage or suppress whatever speech its decision-makers deem meet or do not meet its standards.

However, Twitter should exercise caution, now that it has moved into the dangerous territory of enforcing new rules that appear to be a reaction to one specific message and the few groups spreading it. In this case, the rules are being used to shut down the accounts of groups such as the far-right Britain First, which posts inflammatory (and allegedly falsified) videos meant to cast Muslims in the worst possible light. There is little doubt their posts are meant to stir up hate.

Few would claim Britain First’s messages are anything but garbage, which the vast majority of civilized society rightly rejects. That does not mean they do not have a right — under the U.S. Constitution, at least — to express those sentiments that do not specifically encourage violence.

Twitter is a private business, of course. Its owners are free to encourage or limit whatever types of speech they desire. Still, as something approaching a common carrier, Twitter should bend over backwards to ensure the standards it uses to ban Britain First and other similar accounts are applied uniformly to all its accounts.

It is interesting, and not a little distressing, that many of the groups applauding Twitter’s initiative become livid when anyone suggests speech from their favored causes may cause violence or amount to hate speech. Inflammatory speech that can trigger race riots comes to mind.

Both situations bring to light the difficulties of maintaining the right to free expression, amid the temptation to crack down on — even punish — speech some find disagreeable or flat out wrong. Twitter, as a non-government corporation, has the most leeway to make such decisions; but also a great deal of responsibility to lead by example. Whether it be banning controversial social media accounts or banning uncomfortable (for some) words, the slippery slope of muzzling speech is one down which we must not slide.

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