Banning and suspending users is problematic

Twitter is wrongly censoring certain swear words in order to prevent potential abuse

Twitter helps disseminate an idea quickly and provides users with a large audience to convey their messages to, no matter how many followers or important figures follow them. Although this is great when it comes to promoting an event or a social cause close to your heart, it can also have negative outcomes. As we have seen, social media platforms can lead to abuse and the spread of hateful messages. It might be easier to share your well-intentioned ideas, but it’s also easier to share ill-intentioned ones.

Twitter has been criticized by the public for inefficiently dealing with “trolls”—people who spread hateful comments to start fights. But lately, Twitter is using a new system. According to the Washington Post, instead of reviewing content that was signalled as abusive, Twitter detects certain keywords that, if used, will cause the platform to mute users for 12 hours. Muting is not the same as banning. You can still use your account, but if you mention someone who doesn’t follow you, the mentioned account won’t be notified about the tweet. And if someone retweets from the punished account, only those following the punished account will be able to see the retweet.

While this mute feature is not as drastic as a ban, I still find it highly problematic. What exactly is considered abusive speech? Twitter is a bit vague about this. The message Twitter issues when an account gets muted is: “We’ve temporarily limited some of your account features […] We’ve detected some potentially abusive behaviour from your account, so only your followers can see your activity on Twitter for the amount of time shown below.”

One user, Victoria Fierce, was recently muted for tweeting: “Fuck you, I gotta piss, and you’re putting me—an American—in danger of assault by your white supremacist brothers,’’ to Vice President Mike Pence. Twitter didn’t give a specific explanation for why she was muted—it might have been her use of the F-word or even the phrase “white supremacist.” It’s incredibly ambiguous. I’m assuming she was muted because of her swearing. While it’s not the most elegant way to speak, swearing has its purpose when trying to show outrage or convey emotion toward a certain topic. In my opinion, swearing, while being shocking, is a useful tool and should not be censored just to prevent potential harassment.

Using algorithms to punish users, rather than a human who can understand context, is problematic. Everything has context, and words that generally shouldn’t be used might be acceptable depending on the user’s intention. For example, how does a bot designed to oversee abusive tweets detect sarcasm, which is all about context? In its attempt to prevent abuse, Twitter may be silencing people who shouldn’t be silenced. That is terrifying, and we should be careful not to confuse “preventing hate speech” with “preventing people from using certain keywords.” I also find the 12-hour mute policy problematic. Since it’s done automatically, your ability to communicate with a larger audience is being restricted without understanding exactly what you did wrong. Twelve hours in today’s intense information-sharing cycle is a long time.

Some Twitter users have also pointed out that it seems the ban is mostly being used against people who tweet at a verified account. If this is actually the case, it causes another problem. Twitter is protecting public figures who can rely on a strong community of followers to help them fight the abuse. Meanwhile, small users with few followers or little influence become victims of abuse and are not prioritized by this new preventative system.

Since Twitter is its own entity, one could argue the platform has the right to put all the restrictions it wants on users. Yet as a major communication tool, I think it’s Twitter’s responsibility to make sure users’ right to free speech is being respected. I don’t wish for anyone to be the target of abuse on social media, but I think preventing innocent people from using certain words can fall into the category of censorship—which is a whole other serious action that cannot be accepted.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth


Supreme Court cracks down on hate

Image via Flickr

In 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada defined the word hate as “unusually strong and deep-felt emotions of detestation, calumny and vilification,” and, years later, it is seen as just that when it comes to upholding the law.

Two weeks ago the court made an important ruling on a hate speech case. The case in question concerned anti-gay activist William Whatcott who had picketed in public with controversial signs and distributed pamphlets.

The court decided that even though ruling against Whatcott was violating his rights of freedom of expression and religion, the court believed it to be fair and reasonable because they decided his actions amounted to hate speech.

Whatcott is expected to pay $7,500 in damages but stated that he refuses to do so. He believes that this ruling means the court is imposing their moral values on the rest of the country and censoring his free speech rights. Refusing to respect a tribunal order, however, can lead to contempt of court and jail time.

David Arnot, chief commissioner for the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, told the Leader Post that the decision vindicates the organization’s position that Whatcott’s words and behavior “crossed the line between critical speech and hateful speech — the type of extreme speech that has the potential to incite violence against others, challenge their safety and human dignity and in fact actively promote discrimination.”

After this, Whatcott hit the streets again last week and took a controversial stand with anti-gay and anti-abortion signs outside of the University of Regina, where he offended many students.

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and religion, however, when one is imposing a certain view or opinion on another person or group, that’s when I have a problem.

This is not to say you can’t have an opinion, but how you choose to express it is a different story. One must realize that opinions differ amongst people, and that one is not better than the other.

Despite his lawyer’s warnings that further acts of this nature could land him a contempt of court charge, Whatcott again said that it won’t stop him.

“I have to follow Christ first. What I have said is true. There’s not a sentence that I retract, so likely future flyers will be more of the same,” he told the National Post.

Justice Marshall Rothstein wrote on behalf of the court that Whatcott’s actions “delegitimizes homosexuals by referring to them as filthy or dirty sex addicts and by comparing them to pedophiles, a traditionally reviled group in society.”

Although Whatcott saw it as a violation of his own right to freedom of speech and religion, the court responded that “ultimately, it is the need to protect the societal standing of vulnerable groups that is the objective of legislation restricting hate speech,” the National Post reported.

In my opinion, who a person marries doesn’t affect anyone else but them. If a woman chooses to get an abortion, rape victim or not, how does it affect anyone else but her? It doesn’t.

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