Twitter is a Business, Not the Government
As most here surely know by now, Robert Stacy McCain’s Twitter account was suspended by Twitter this past week. The reactions on the intertubes to this have been pretty much what you might expect.
Over at Reason — in an article noted here by CK on our Linkage board — Robby Soave condemned Twitter with some downright chilling rhetoric. “Orwellian” was the exact word Soave used to describe Twitter’s decision to suspend, comparing its management to 1984’s “Ministry of Truth.” PJ Media, not wanting to be left behind in the gushing-ALL-CAPS-rhetoric derby, declared that “Twitter has ‘disappeared’ McCain.” And McCain himself was happy to promote not only the idea that he was Winston Smith incarnate, but perhaps the living embodiment of Truth itself:
Facts are harassment and truth is hate and Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia. [A feminist who disagrees with me is] anti-truth. She and her little squad of soi-disant “feminists” are just hustlers looking for a free ride, and the only way they can get that ride is to silence anyone who speaks the truth about them and calls them out as the cheap bullshit artists they actually are. Me? Nobody cares about me. I am not the story. But I am the guy telling the story, and I’m not going to shut up so long as I can breathe. If I drop dead right here, right now, as soon as I click “send,” I will keep telling the truth, because that’s what the job is about. F**k “social justice.” Give me freedom, and give me truth.
And then McCain answered and said unto the Sarkesians, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. To each generation a Rosa Parks is born, I guess.
Fans of Robert Stacey McCain refer to him first and foremost as a journalist, though you may or may not choose to take that designation with a grain of salt. Years ago, McCain did indeed work for the Washington Times as both a reporter and editor. Since 2008, however, McCain has been practicing journalism in the same way that a Men’s Rights blog does so. A quick review of his website suggests that much of his work is simply finding ill-thought-out tweets and YouTube videos by unknown teenage feminists and black men, and then mocking them and encouraging his followers to do so as well. The degree to which this makes him either a journalist or an internet troll likely depends entirely on the individual person considering the question.
Journalist or not, there is little question that McCain is a first and foremost a purposefully divisive character. McCain is a white nationalist who states that the “revulsion” you pretend that you don’t feel when you hear of a white woman and a black man intermingling is “altogether natural.” He acted the apologist for Ray Rice’s spousal abuse. His primary concern about anti-gay rhetoric in recent years was that it focused too heavily on male gays and thus insufficiently demonized lesbians. Like Chuck Johnson and Milo Yiannopoulos (who were “censored” by being either being suspended or having a fancy blue check mark next to their name removed by Big Twitter, respectively), McCain seems primarily concerned with finding ways to keep his name in the conversations regardless of context.
It is an odd phenomena of social media that it somehow transforms cultural relativism’s biggest critics into its most impassioned defenders. Because of this, one of the biggest complaints against Twitter by those critical of his suspension is the entirely correct observation that McCain’s beliefs were not treated with an exactly equal degree of respect and deference as others’ more mainstream beliefs. The second (and also true) critique of Twitter has been that even if you consider Robert Stacy McCain a troll, he is certainly not the biggest one in the Twitter-verse. Finally, there is outrage that Twitter has not detailed to the public why it did what it did to McCain.
The question is therefore raised, what do we make of Twitter suspending McCain? Do we condemn those who work there as jack-booted thugs, as Reason and PJ Media might wish? Do we decry Twitter’s dark curtain of censorship, even if we find that the whole Death-of-Truth thingy makes us want to roll our eyes? Do we draw a line in the sand, make a stand for Freedom of Speech, and say to Twitter that we will not tolerate their suspending anyone’s account, regardless of how we might feel about that person?
Or — and I’m sure I’m going out on a limb here — is it possible that Twitter is just making a rational and defensible business decision, and that we should all just chill out?
One of the great truisms of Ordinary Times, oddly, isn’t actually entirely true.
From its first inception as the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, this site has prided itself on being first and foremost a place where “all points of view are welcome.” To the extent that this is true, however, it is only true within a given universe. We gladly welcome those who are liberal, leftist, libertarian, conservative, Republican, Democrat, third-party, men, women, straight, LGBTs, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, small-sect, atheist, people from any and all nations, and even the occasional Rush or Kenny G fan. This is, we believe, a fairly expansive universe — far more expansive than found at most sites that cover politics and culture, I would argue. But make no mistake. It is still a universe with boundaries.
Over the years there have been essays submitted to this site that I have declined to run based solely on the writers’ points of view. I said no thank you to a piece that argued — with zero tongue implanted in cheek — that women who went to college to compete with men in the job marketplace were by their very nature “devious whores” who deserved to be “given a good strong hand to the face.” I also declined to run an argument that Christianity existed for the sole purpose of knowingly enabling child abuse and pedophelia. I passed on a short story whose bizarre text was a kind of snuff fantasy, describing the satisfaction the author believed he would get from using a broken tequila bottle to castrate the previous President of the United States. I went so far as to eventually block the email address of one particularly adamant writer who kept submitting treatises declaring that the darker the skin of a human male, the less value that person had as a human being.
I did not reject these and others like them because they were poorly written; indeed, some were quite eloquently phrased. Nor did I refuse them because I disagreed with their stances. I did disagree, obviously, but the truth is that I personally disagree partially or entirely with more than half of the stuff we post here. I didn’t even turn them down because I thought someone somewhere might find them offensive, because I have learned that there is no piece that one can write that won’t offend someone somewhere, and trying to do so and still be a writer is a sucker’s game.
No, I turned down these pieces because OT is first and foremost our product, and its community is our customer base. Expanding our borders to create a universe that was inclusive of the types of posts I mentioned above would have fundamentally changed both that product and that customer base. Running those essays would have likely meant losing most if not all of our current readers and commenters. Additionally, it would likely result in our best and most prolific writers — who would not want their persons identified even indirectly with such writing — severing their relationship with this site. (Including, not incidentally, me.)
This is not a revolutionary or even unusual stance on our part. Indeed, the thought that Reason and PJ Media would condemn another media business for not giving equal access to any and all political viewpoints regardless of whether or not they agreed with them is beyond laughable. If Twitter suspending one objectionable guy is our nation losing its most precious freedoms under shades of 1984, what the hell does that make Reason and PJ Media?
The truth is that Twitter has had a customer service problem that threatened its potential profitability for a long time. The vast preponderance of the statements published in the Twitterverse are entirely unremarkable and eminently forgettable, but a lot of the activity on its fringes is a cause for managerial concern. People have received death threats, or at least messages that can be construed as death threats. 1 Every woman I interviewed for my MRM article — every single one — received at one time or another tweets calling for their rape. Additionally, I know several women who are my age, and who have no interest in or even knowledge of Gamergate, who have made tweets that have been misunderstood by Twitterers as taking a side on “ethics in gaming journalism.” They, too, have each received public wishes for their rape and/or victimization by violence.
To people who frequent this site, this is likely all just culture-war click bait, or a neat place to plant a flag in a First Amendment debate. For many Twitter users, however, it is ample reason to stay the hell off of Twitter, and to encourage their friends, family, and coworkers to do the same. And once you reach a place where you risk losing a big chunk of your customer base, you have a problem. Twitter has had a choice for a long time, one that they kept putting off in the hopes that it would go away: they could leave things as is, or they could start policing trollish behavior. They appear to have finally chosen the latter. This necessarily means making a choice of which groups and behaviors you’re going to show the door. In the case of Robert Stacy McCain, a user who appears to have used Twitter as a vehicle to find women and African Americans he thought his hordes would be happy to make miserable, they seem to have made just such a choice. They might well have gone after those who followed McCain’s lead, those who actually delivered the prayers for violence and rape to those McCain had merely highlighted, but they appear to be trying a more efficient route. This might be an effective strategy; it might be an ineffective strategy. It is not, however, a crazy one.
Regardless of its efficacy, however, there is no reason why Twitter should not be allowed to do what they are doing. They are protecting their business interest by making decisions about what types of behaviors they do and don’t want to accept, in the hopes of keeping those customers that they most covet happy. That is not censorship, nor is it a curtailing of rights. It’s not 1984 come to life; it’s not even close. It’s just a business decision. If this business decision turns out to be ill-conceived, Twitter will reverse course. Or it won’t, and it will suffer and perhaps go out of business. Them’s the breaks, after all. But these too are the breaks: If you are driving away some of a business’s most valuable customers, you may not find yourself welcome in that place of business.
Because of my time here at both the League and Ordinary Times, I both sympathize and empathize with Twitter’s decision to suspend McCain. (Or, for that matter, suspending Johnson and taking away Yiannopoulos’s blue check mark.) I also understand their decisions to not broadcast to the world their reasoning regarding actions toward individual customers or employees, as well as their choice to be purposefully fuzzy about what they will or will not accept in the future. Most people of good faith know at least approximately where such lines are without ever having to be told, and they act accordingly. In my experience, those that ask for very precise coordinates of such lines do so in order to dance as close to them as they can, attempting to bait those in charge of enforcement. I have little time for such games, and I certainly do not expect managers at Twitter to be forced to play them.
- Free-speech hardliners will likely point out here that a message like “Someone should come to your house and knife you to death” is not technically a death threat, and state further that since it is obvious hyperbole, it is not actionable in court. This is likely true, but that doesn’t mean that someone who gets tweets saying this kind of thing won’t be freaked out, or that Twitter has no business interest in curbing such behavior.