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


TRAC moves to suspend former president

Teaching and Research Assistants of Concordia University (TRAC) has voted to recommend the suspension of Robert Sonin, a current TRAC member and the former president of the labour union local from the executive committee for the next five years. The recommendation follows a complaint Sonin filed regarding unaccounted funds, among other accusations.

Since TRAC is a Directly Chartered Local of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a national union representing public service workers, the organization is unable to suspend Sonin without approval from PSAC. However, they made the decision in early November to send their recommendation to the union’s national board, where the final decision regarding the suspension will be made. The decision date has yet to be determined.

The recommended suspension comes after a long chain of complaints about the actions of TRAC’s executive committee. In 2014, an investigation was conducted in response to complaints filed against TRAC president Nader Nodoushan by Sonin and two then-executive members, Isabelle Johnston and Daria Saryan. The investigation was conducted by two presidents of other PSAC locals at the time—Amber Gross from the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) and Kevin Whitaker from the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA).

The investigation concluded that “it was clear that Mr. Nodoushan did knowingly and willingly violate Article 12.4 of the TRAC bylaws,” a rule prohibiting him from making purchasing decisions of over $3,000 without committee approval. The investigation also determined some of his behaviour towards Sonin, Saryan and Johnston “constituted intimidation and harassment,” however, it was not found that Nodoushan had ill intentions or “realized how problematic his actions were becoming.”

The investigation also looked into counter-complaints made by Nodoushan. Sonin was investigated in the report for accusations of harassment, submitting unjustified timesheets, fabricating rumours about executive members, not holding the legal credentials to be an executive member and being delayed in paying back a $450 loan from TRAC during a period where there was a delay in liberation payments—payments made to TRAC executives who need to miss work in order to fulfill their duties as an executive member from Concordia University.

The investigation dismissed every complaint against Sonin except the delay in paying back the loan. It reported that, while the delay seemed reasonable as “Mr. Nodoushan was occasionally withholding Mr. Sonin’s pay,” the report recommended that Sonin should have settled what was owed immediately.

The report’s recommended corrective action included the removal of Nodoushan from the position of president with a one-year suspension from any elected TRAC position, and the removal of Sonin, Saryan and Johnston from their executive positions with no suspension. However, the TRAC executive committee voted to dismiss these recommendations.

The conflict between executive members continued in March of 2016 when, as The Concordian previously reported, Sonin filed a Tribunal administratif du travail complaint. He had noticed that, in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, there was an unexplained discrepancy between what TRAC reported as the difference between their income and expenses and the actual difference, leaving $16,348.93 unaccounted for. The basis of the complaint was that TRAC was allegedly denying Sonin access to financial records and Sonin alleged that TRAC had violated the duty of fair representation under section 47.2 of the Code du travail. Nodoushan denied this in an interview with The Concordian on Nov. 25, claiming Sonin was given access to the records he requested.

According to Sonin, the recent recommendation for his suspension is based on a number of social media posts he made—including sharing the aforementioned The Concordian article—which TRAC has allegedly characterized said posts as “spreading false information.” Sonin called this characterization “complete nonsense,” as the issues he brought up were already available to the public.

“Generally, [these posts] are questions,” said Sonin. “You have this $1,000 cheque and there are no receipts—what happened? If they show the receipts, then I’ll shut up.”

The 2014 investigation report was read in its entirety at the meeting where the executive committee voted on whether to dismiss the recommendations, said Sonin. However, at the 2016 meeting on whether to dismiss the recommendations to suspend Sonin, the report was not read, according to Sonin.

Sonin said he felt the executive committee voted to approve the recommendation of his suspension without full information, as the committee was unable to read the 2016 investigative report surrounding his actions.

“My sense, usually, is if you ask people for information and they refuse to give it to you, it’s because there’s something in there that they don’t want you to see,” Sonin said, questioning whether the 2016 report was being withheld from voters so they would be unable to decide for themselves whether Sonin’s actions constituted spreading false information.

Although the date has yet to be determined, Sonin predicted the PSAC’s national board will release their decision regarding Sonin’s suspension in early 2017.

Nodoushan declined to comment on both the recommendation of Sonin’s suspension, as it is still an ongoing process and the 2014 report, claiming he was unable, as president, to comment on confidential investigations. However, he noted that every part of the process regarding Sonin’s recommended suspension has complied with regulation 19 of PSAC’s constitution, a regulation which outlines how to deal with membership discipline.

Nodoushan also shared the Tribunal administratif du travail’s decision on Sonin’s complaint regarding access to financial records. The Tribunal rejected his complaint, calling it “dilatory,” a word often used to describe motions that cause a delay.

Regardless, Sonin still claims there is validity to his complaint and the rejection was due to a technical error on his part.

“[Dilatory] is a legal term that can mean I did something the wrong way. It could mean it was frivolous, but it could mean I went to the wrong court,” Sonin said.

Nodoushan also added TRAC represents thousands of teaching assistants and research assistants at Concordia University and speaking out against the union as Sonin did could damage the reputation of TRAC and affect their ability to negotiate better pay and working conditions.

“What we say affects people. This is more important than one person—this is about the workers and students that TRAC represents,” Nodoushan said.

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