Twitter (which did not return a request for comment) announced its new policy last week with a nod to some of the challenges facing disenfranchised groups online. “The misuse of private media can affect everyone, but can have a disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities,” Twitter noted in its announcement.
Instead, members of those groups have been stung by the new policy.
Gwen Snyder, a Philadelphia-based anti-fascist, has real reason to worry about privacy violations online. For years, she’s monitored the paramilitary Proud Boys, leading members of the group to pay a late-night visit to her home in 2019. Snyder was not home at the time, and the group passed on a threat to her neighbor. Since then, the Proud Boys have announced a 2020 rally across from Snyder’s home, and Snyder’s home has been SWATted (a dangerous tactic in which trolls call police SWAT teams to a person’s home) twice.
Nevertheless, Snyder’s account was suspended over the tweet, along with a slew of other anti-fascist and left-leaning accounts that supposedly ran afoul of the new privacy rule.
In a statement to The Washington Post this weekend, a Twitter spokesperson claimed that Snyder’s ban and a handful of others were in error, and had been reversed. Other accounts weren’t so lucky.
“mpls photo bot,” an account that shares historical documents from Minneapolis, was suspended and restored this week, apparently over a picture of a historical postcard that still bore traces of an address. “Account locked for posting a hundred year old, historic postcard,” the account’s moderator tweeted in exasperation.
In some cases, the suspended accounts didn’t even tweet the pictures in question. The Twitter account Miami Against Fascism was briefly suspended last week for quote-tweeting a Miami journalist who had photographed Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio outside a school board meeting. (Tarrio, currently in prison for arson at a Black church, is a public figure.)
Another anti-fascist account was suspended this week for tweeting the legal name of neo-Nazi leader Andrew “Vic Mackey” Casarez. Casarez’s identity has been the subject of multiple national media reports, especially after his guns were seized in 2020.
Though she is back on Twitter, Snyder pointed to that ban as proof that Twitter was still letting fascists game the system.
“I'm appalled that Twitter is continuing to enforce a policy that is vague and obviously flawed. Nazis are using this ‘privacy’ policy to silence principled attempts to hold them accountable for violence and stochastic terror, and it's incredibly disturbing that Twitter is knowingly continuing to enable that activity.”
Greer told The Daily Beast that Twitter’s new policy was overbroad.
“This is what happens when we constantly demand that platforms remove more content faster without any concern for the collateral damage and harm done by over moderation and removal of legitimate content,” Greer said. “Conversations about content moderation and measures to reduce online harassment and abuse desperately need more thoughtfulness and recognition of the harm done when these mechanisms are inevitably abused to silence activists and journalists who are trying to hold powerful people and institutions accountable.”
Some of the attacks have come from organized groups on the far right. The Proud Boys have long maintained “mass report” channels on Telegram, which they used to deluge Twitter with complaints about accounts they dislike. That channel and others used the new policy to declare open season on their opponents.
On Sunday, even after Twitter had described some bans as errors, the far right was still organizing around the mass-report lists. One Telegram account created that day racked up more than 2,000 followers in 24 hours, encouraging the new subscribers to file reports against a list of accounts on the left.
Greer said social media platforms like Twitter should try to envision how their new policies might work in the wrong hands.
“It's astounding to me that platforms continue to roll out measures like this without asking themselves, ‘What will happen when nazis try to abuse this?’” she said.