If you are one of my regular readers or social media followers, you may have noticed that my Twitter has been awfully quiet over the last few days. That is because it has been locked. One of my tweets, documenting an anti-Semitic attack on a name-brand sportswear company, was found in violation of the tech giant’s rules of conduct.
It was an easy fix—or at least, it purported to be. Delete the tweet or appeal the decision to Twitter and wait for a response, which would come “as soon as possible.” But the implications of what has happened concern every journalist and user on social media.
On Monday, Adidas U.K. ran a promotional ad for its new line celebrating the British soccer club “Arsenal.” Users could ‘like’ the tweet and the account, relying on artificial intelligence, would generate an image of an Arsenal jersey with the user’s name printed across the back above the line, “Welcome to the club.”
Predictably, this feature went awry when right-wing trolls took advantage of it to push hate speech. For example, one user managed to get Adidas to tweet a jersey with @GasAllJewss across the back, drawing the attention of journalists and prompting swift backlash.
For me, it was an unhappy mix of outrage, disappointment, and somewhat numb disbelief. This company had stupidly endorsed killing me.
Now, I am not a religious person. I identify as both a secular Jew and an atheist. And while I have ancestors who died in the Holocaust, throughout my life, my cultural background has rarely occasioned reflection outside holidays. “I am an American and that’s all there is to it,” I told myself for years.
But that was before 2016. Seeing the rise of right-wing nationalism and its opposite, the first viable Jewish presidential candidate in history—and the media treatment of him—made me more aware of my Jewishness than ever before.
Something about seeing a tweet from an official Adidas account welcoming ‘gas all Jews’ to “the club”—even knowing the company had been the victim of a prank—left me rattled. I was reminded of a story my father would tell me growing up about his father seeing the Hindenburg flying overhead with Swastikas emblazoned on it.
My first thought was that this tweet and this prank were so emblematic of the political moment that they should be preserved. For as much as we like to pretend we’ve progressed far beyond the savage brutality that engulfed the world less than a century ago, historic inequality has given rise of a new fascist threat—one for which traditional liberal parties seem to have no answer.
“This is real and it should not be deleted,” I tweeted. “It’s important that we remember this has happened in 2019.” Beneath that, I posted a screenshot of the Adidas U.K. account’s ‘gas all Jews’ tweet with the caption, “For posterity.”
Journalist @WalkerBragman had his account censored for posting a deleted, wildly anti-Semitic tweet from Adidas. While many MSM pundits get free reign to stretch the meaning of anti-Semitism to attack their enemies, Bragman had his account locked for exposing real Jew hatred pic.twitter.com/4oAwdNfYv1— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) July 5, 2019
By the next morning, my mini thread had been included in multiple articles in outlets ranging from The Guardian to The Hill to The Wrap to Fox Business to Yahoo Entertainment. Hours later, however, I was notified by Twitter that my “For posterity” tweet was in violation of its rules and as such my account had been locked. I had a choice to either delete the offending tweet or appeal the decision during which time my account would remain locked. I opted to take the latter approach and so now, I await an arbitrary decision by big tech company to determine whether or not I can, as a Jewish journalist, preserve a record of newsworthy online antisemitism on its platform.
Simply put, Twitter’s standards for determining what content is and is not acceptable are unworkable and capricious. The same is true for other social media platforms.
This is not my first run-in with the tech giant. For months, I, along with other journalists and activists, have been working to spread images from Yemen in order to shine a light on the genocide the U.S. and its allies are perpetrating there (for more, read my report from last August). Twitter has presented a constant obstacle, slapping our accounts with violations and demanding the removal of tweets containing such images. Facebook has presented a similar hurdle. I’ve even been told by someone living in Yemen, who relies on social media as their only means of outreach to the world, that Twitter’s policies are a reason for self-censorship.
Part of the problem is the fact that Twitter and Facebook are private companies and the First Amendment only restricts state actors. That means its speech protections do not apply when these platforms make decisions affecting their users’ ability to publish.
Moreover, social media platforms like Twitter have great latitude to moderate user content under the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 establishes a wall between publishers and providers (in this case users and platforms, respectively), cloaking the latter with legal immunity for the content created by the former, in most instances. However, Section 230 contains a Good Samaritan provision which blurs the line between the two classifications, allowing providers to “restrict access to or availability of material that” they deem “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected” so long as they act “in good faith.” The result is that today, Twitter and Facebook act as both publishers and providers.
And that reality is problematic. These platforms have become ubiquitous, with users numbering in the hundreds of millions—330 million for Twitter and 2.38 billion for Facebook. They are used by politicians, federal agencies, journalists, news outlets, contemporary artists, lobby groups, think tanks, cultural influencers, and people across the planet. But the incentives for these companies are all wrong given the role they play in the world. Public corporations have a legal duty to prioritize maximizing shareholder profits above all else. In other words, Twitter and Facebook are required to prioritize growing and maintaining their user bases above all other concerns, including protecting challenging content to ensure a free and open political dialogue.
None of this is likely to change in the time it takes Twitter to review my post and decide if it complies with its terms of service. But the fact that a Jewish journalist cannot document newsworthy instances of anti-Semitism without risking violation and a lengthy lockout should give us all pause. Perhaps the time has come to expand the scope of the First Amendment to encompass major social media platforms.
Update, 7/6: Twitter denied my appeal, arguing my tweet was in fact in violation of its terms of service. It has since been deleted and re-posted.