Note: This post contains graphic language.
Shahak Shapira is a Berlin-based social commentator and activist. On Twitter, Shapira reported on tweets he found, tweets he called “absolutely serious threats of violence, homophobia, xenophobia, or Holocaust denial.”
Twitter labels hate speech as a terms of service violation, prohibiting “the promotion of hate speech globally.” While Shapira reported over 300 tweets, Twitter responded only nine times, stating that the tweets didn’t violate its terms of service, and so they would not remove them.
So Shapira decided to make the digital comments real, spray-painting 30 of the 300 racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic tweets — and the accounts associated with them — on the sidewalk outside Twitter’s German headquarters in Hamburg.
The tweets Shapira reported are disturbing to type, and to read:
“N*GGERS ARE A PLAGUE TO OUR SOCIETY” @CHINK_N*GGER
“RETWEET IF YOU HATE MUSLIMS” @PAUL_SOLDING
“JUDENSCHWEIN” (Jewish Pig)
“GAYS TO AUSCHWITZ”
He posted a video of his campaign, #HEYTWITTER, on YouTube.
Said Shapira: “If Twitter forces me to see those things, then they’ll have to see them, too.” Twitter had the spray-painted tweets removed from the sidewalk, prompting Shapira’s comment that this action “fits well with Twitter’s policy of cleaning in front of their own door and leaving the rest to be someone else’s problem.”
Twitter says it doesn’t comment on individual accounts, but a spokesman told CNN it strictly enforces rules where appropriate and allow users to mute or block accounts themselves.
“According to the June 2017 European Commission’s Review of Illegal Hate Speech online, Twitter has sped up dealing with notifications, reviewing 39 percent of them in less than 24 hours. This is up from 23.5 percent in December,” writes Samuel Burke on CNN Money.
Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “A lot of these companies want to have it both ways — when they want to boost usage, they talk about their commitments to free speech and openness and equality; when they want to restrict speech to avoid liability and curate a more welcoming environment, they become more of an editor, more of a censor.” He added, “There is no good model right now.”
So, is censorship the answer? J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, penned a report showing a 600 percent increase in the number of Twitter followers of major white nationalist movements since 2012.
Beger says social media gives extremists some powerful tools for growth: anonymity and an easy way to seek out people with similar interests. “On the Internet, ugly ideas aren’t discarded, they’re supercharged. That’s the real danger,” said Berger.
White nationalism will pose serious a challenge, according to Berger. One study of 10,000 Donald Trump supporters on Twitter found more than one-third followed at least one of 10 white nationalists, including former KKK leader David Duke and Ann Kelly of the White Genocide Project.
Is it time for tech to shift its focus and begin to actively manage the balance between free speech and hate speech?
For some, the time is overdue to do so.
“Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential,” wrote Twitter co-founder Biz Stone back in 2011.
“Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”
The 2011 Twitter and the 2017 Twitter may not be the same thing. So far, the company hasn’t commented officially on the #HeyTwitter campaign.