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I Was Banned for Life From Twitter

When I was in Iran, the government there blocked Twitter, effectively deciding for an entire nation what they cannot read. In America, Twitter itself purges users, effectively deciding for an entire nation what they cannot read. It matters little whose hand is on the switch: government or corporate, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.

Speech in America is an inalienable right, and runs as deep into our free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote that it flowed directly from his idea of a Creator, which we understand [1] today as less that free speech is heaven-sent so much as that it is something that exists above government. And so the argument that the First Amendment applies only to the government and not to private platforms like Twitter is both true and irrelevant—and the latter is more important.

The government remains a real threat to free speech. But there is another menace now: corporate censorship, often dressed up in NewSpeak terms like “deplatforming,” restricting “hate speech [2]” and “fake news,” and “terms of service [3].” This isn’t entirely new: corporations have always done as they please with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, best expressed as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” This ethos was core to our democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw their ideas into the marketplace, where an informed people push bad ideas away with good ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.

For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with our near-universal agreement over the right to speak, driven by a false belief that too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the old-timey First Amendment and taunting “conservatives” for not being able to do anything about it. But the most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which once embodied “defend the right, not the content” when it stood up for the free speech rights of Nazis in the 1970s.


Not anymore. The ACLU now applies a test [4] to the speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other issues (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the feelings of people of color). The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech should be secondary [5] to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they determine is a greater good.

So in 2018, whenever old tweets clash with modern-day definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon [6] recently removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its store. This was just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merchandise, but the issue is not the value of the products—that’s part of any free speech debate—it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by, in this case, literally pulling items out of the marketplace. Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed [7] from networks where it had been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon. The Huffington Post wondered [8] why even more platforms haven’t done away with Jones.

“Hate speech,” clearly not prohibited [1] according to the Supreme Court, is an umbrella term used by censorship advocates to describe anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era [9] in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.”

Twitter is perhaps the most infamous example of a platform censoring its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets. It suspends those who promote (what it defines as) hatred and violence, “shadow bans [10]” others to limit the size of their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It purges users and bans “hateful symbols [11].” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. Users can report other users so that Twitter can evaluate whether they should be suspended. The motivation is always the same: to limit the ideas people can choose to be exposed to.

The problem here is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, Zuck, and @jack is popular, as is extolling their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding that they do it.

Of course, values shift, and what seems good to block today might change tomorrow. But the biggest issue is that companies exist to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means it will inevitably quash ideas when they conflict with profits. Those who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the First Amendment and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.

Google (until May [12]) had a slogan commanding its employees: “don’t be evil.” Yet in China, Google is deploying Dragonfly [13], a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course, in China they don’t call it hate speech; they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. Meanwhile, Apple [14] removes apps from its store at the command of the Chinese government in return for market access. Amazon [15], which agreed to pull hateful merchandise from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed that it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” in using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with a future loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?

Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. In 2018, the platforms in question are near-global monopolies. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post and can influence elections, is just another company that sells things, is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Censored on Twitter? Try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance have changed the nature of censorship so that free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate. In 1776, you went to the town square; in 2018, it’s Twitter.

Senator Chris Murphy [16], in a recent and ironic tweet, demanded that social media networks censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying that companies can act as proxies [17] for those still held back by the First Amendment. Murphy already knows that companies can [18] censor. The debate for us is over what happens when they do.

Let me end on a personal note. I was this week permanently suspended from my Twitter account, @wemeantwell. This followed an exchange I had with mainstream journalists over their unwillingness to challenge government lies in which I made a flippant remark no hotter than what you see on Twitter every day. Twitter sent an auto-response to me saying that what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word for it. I wish instead you could have read my words and decided for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. They have eliminated everything I wrote there over the past seven years, all down the Memory Hole. That’s why censorship is wrong: it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [19]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [20]: A Novel of WWII Japan.

121 Comments (Open | Close)

121 Comments To "I Was Banned for Life From Twitter"

#1 Comment By Jack Hamilton On August 11, 2018 @ 2:13 am

I don’t use Twitter but, do I understand correctly that various terrorist groups are active on Twitter, such as ISIS? If yes, why are they allowed to use the service?

#2 Comment By Zardoz On August 11, 2018 @ 6:11 am

The selective enforcement on social media is the liberal caste system. You dared speak rudely to a verified liberal, and that can’t be allowed, you offended a priest of their religion, and so the heretic was struck down.
Its a terrifying world these people want for us, its why they must be fought at every opportunity we get.

#3 Comment By Lenny B On August 11, 2018 @ 6:44 am

Such a ban is not significant.

#4 Comment By Jett Rucker On August 11, 2018 @ 11:04 am

American Conservative deplatformed (fired) Philip Giraldi this past year when Giraldi was just a little too honest about Israel.

American Conservative is as much a part of the problem as Twitter, Facebook, Amazon – all of them.

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 11, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

A DC Wonk says: “BTW, didn’t those ‘on the right’ applaud the banning of the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves from so many radio stations?”

Many did applaud the banning from a few radio stations, but many country music performers and fans did NOT applaud. Merle Haggard (“Okie From Muskogee”) said: “I don’t even know the Dixie chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching. Whether I agree with their comments or not has no bearing.”

At their first concert on the Dixie Chicks first tour after the controversy began (in Greenville, South Carolina, on May 1, 2003) there was a sell-out crowd of 15,000. Although it is true that on May 22, at the Academy of Country Music awards ceremony in Las Vegas, there were some boos when the band’s nomination for Entertainer of the Year award was announced, CMT awards host, Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, reminded the audience that everyone is entitled to freedom of speech.

Lipton, who had signed on as full sponsor of the Dixie Chicks tour, was barraged with complaints from consumers threatening to boycott their products (along with those of their parent co-sponsors, Unilever and Pepsi), but Lipton fully honored its sponsorship and financial commitment to the Dixie Chicks.

#6 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On August 11, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

Jonathan M. Katz, the journalist who provoked Peter Van Buren into making a facetious reference to his face being done something to by a Trumpster, replied by saying that he was reporting Van Buren’s comment to Twitter for “promoting violence.”

This is the problem. Neo-fascistic liberals trying to shut down anti-liberal voices. Also, the journo is obviously humor-challenged and/or has an I.Q. too low to appreciate irony/sarcasm/

#7 Comment By desadiste On August 11, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

I banned myself from Twitter years ago by not joining.

#8 Comment By Mark Krvavica On August 11, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

On November 2017, I was suspended from Twitter. Yesterday I sent my latest appeal against this action and they rejected it today, I was not surprised. Since my exile last year, I have moved to Instagram and made the most of it. I’m unlikely to tweet again.

#9 Comment By Ken T On August 11, 2018 @ 11:22 pm

But everyone trying to make this about me misses the whole point of the article, […] Try again, kids.

Mr. Van Buren: Please let me give you some totally non-partisan advice. If “everyone” is missing the point of your article, YOU are the one who needs to “try again”. This applies to anyone who is trying to communicate anything. Just writing over and over “Well, I know what I meant, so if you don’t, it’s your fault” is simply not effective communication.

#10 Comment By Bert Powers On August 12, 2018 @ 8:32 am

Twitter did you a favor by waking you up.

#11 Comment By A DC Wonk On August 12, 2018 @ 8:59 am

The selective enforcement on social media is the liberal caste system.

And yet Twitter took a stand and announced/explained why they would not ban Alex Jones and InfoWars.

That’s some caste system!

#12 Comment By Laurence Jarvik On August 12, 2018 @ 9:12 am

Please find a lawyer to sue for defamation! Being banned on false charges harms your ability to promote your work and earn income…not a joke.

#13 Comment By Pat Kittle On August 12, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

But it’s OK for American Conservative to fire Philip Giraldi.

NO ONE should be allowed to criticize Precious Innocent Little Israel!

#14 Comment By There’s always Gab On August 12, 2018 @ 4:05 pm

God-given right to free speech? Where, oh where, in any of the Abahamic religious texts is freedom of speech extolled? My impression is that Bronze-age values like slavery are indeed supported, but freedom of speech? Where?

#15 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 12, 2018 @ 7:22 pm

Jett Rucker says (Aug 11,11:04 am): “American Conservative deplatformed (fired) Philip Giraldi this past year when Giraldi was just a little too honest about Israel. American Conservative is as much a part of the problem as Twitter, Facebook, Amazon – all of them.”

You’re right, Jett. In the case of Philip Giraldi TAC was certainly “as much a part of the problem…” TAC fired Philip for posting at Unz Review (whose publisher, Ron Unz, is the former publisher of TAC) an article that several times in the context of that article referred to “the Israel Lobby” as “the Jewish Lobby.” (Big _______ deal, or what?!!)

Who wanted to silence Philip Giraldi? Who got to TAC?

#16 Comment By Youknowho On August 12, 2018 @ 11:21 pm

Well, the Conservatives removed regulations and government interference, trusting the businesses to do the right thing.

How does that honor system work with Twitter, Mr. Van Burern? Ready to reconsider your opinion of government regulations?

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 13, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

A blessing in disguise

#18 Comment By JohnInCA On August 13, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

Publishers have always “censored”, in that they controlled who they hired, what “letters to the editor” they would run, which classified ads they would run and so-on. Book publishers always exercise discretion and yes, discriminiation, in deciding what they do and don’t publish. Bookstores and newspaper stands always make decisions on what they will and won’t carry, and so-on.

So commercialism being entwined with Free Speech is hardly new. What’s new is the claim that commercialism is going too far, and that companies should act as though they were government. Or to put it another way… no private company, ever, has been obligated to publish everything. That some have broadly chosen to do so is a kindness.

Van Buren appears to believe that publishing all views and comments should be an *obligation*. That’s a point worth arguing, whether or not social media has become so important to American everday life that it should be treated as a neutral utility. But if that’s the point you want to argue, then make that point. Don’t just whine that a publisher things you’re unfit to publish.

#19 Comment By Avedon On August 18, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

JohnInCA, what publishers have always done is chosen and edited for content. That’s expected. But they were known to be publishers with their own brand and having only their own corner of the public discourse – not control of the commons. The problem arises when commercial organizations control what is effectively the commons and act together to prevent you from getting on your crate at Speakers’ Corner.

This worry is not new, and has been a long-standing concern of free speech advocates.

It is precisely because “social media” platforms such as Twitter are not “published” in the normal sense of books, magazines, and publishers, with editors being an expected aspect of their business, but are promoted as and intended to be free-for-alls of unedited, unregulated speech, that having them suddenly choose certain speakers and views and silence them is worrying – especially when all of the major platforms get together to ban one individual or agree to suppress one subject.

I expect any magazine or newspaper to promote certain views and refuse to promote others. But Twitter doesn’t exist *to promote certain views*, that’s antithetical to it’s brand. The very point is that the rabble get to say what we want and follow what we want without some authority telling us what we can say or see.

And they literally *can’t* choose what views to publish. They don’t *have* editors in any real sense, and there is no way they could arrange to edit everything that comes through their pages.

So, yes, it is a serious concern when Facebook suddenly yanks the account of VenezuelaAnalysis and suddenly you can’t read it and there is no coherent voice for an independent voice that disputes the American news media on the subject. Just like it’s a concern when PayPal and the credit card industry suddenly refuse to convey donations to the WikiLeaks account.

And it’s also a mistake to believe that these actions are not taken because of pressure by governmental actors. They certainly are.

#20 Comment By Mark Krvavica On September 11, 2018 @ 6:52 pm

I want you to know that all the time I was on Twitter until my suspension, I didn’t have a email account. I make no excuses for this.

#21 Comment By dave walker On January 3, 2019 @ 6:04 pm

Excellent article. As a libertarian I believe in the right for private businesses to make their own decisions about their practices, but I also believe in free speech. As so often occurs, we are faced with goals that may conflict and must weigh the value of each. There’s no question IMO that free speech is more vital to a democratic republic. In addition, the tech social media giants are essentially monopolies and, for the most part, did not censor conservative speech until they became monopolies, knowing that it would be difficult if not impossible for others who supported free speech to compete in any significant way. Even so, I urge everyone to use gab.ai instead of twitter and duckduckgo.com instead of google. There’s no doubt that if twitter and others who censor started to lose significant revenue because of competitors who did not censor, they would quickly become supporters of free speech for all.