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The Washington Post recently reported that Twitter had again come under criticism for its free speech policies. The story outlined the plight of Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law group, which has threatened to sue Twitter unless the site agreed to shut down the account of a Hezbollah-affiliated television news station. Operating as @almanarnews, the account posts in Arabic, English and French, and as with most news feeds, reports on a number of global stories.
Shurat HaDin claims however, that by allowing the account to stay open, Twitter is helping to aid a network which is sympathetic towards an American-labelled terrorist organisation. This suit is hot on the heels of the case where American politicians, in late December, called on the site to block Islamist propagandists. Twitter has yet to comment officially on either matter, but it appears that their firm policy on free speech will stand and no accounts will be closed.
Twitter’s policy outlines the importance of the free flow of information, and the impact that it can have on the development of democracy in repressed nations. However, the arguments made in the above cases believe that the open expression found within social media can be harmful to democratic development. It could be argued though, that repressing information and forcing it underground is in fact more detrimental than allowing it to flow in an open and debatable environment. But how free should free speech be on Twitter?
Some writers have argued that tweeting could be considered exaggerated water-cooler gossip, and overall should be treated as a conversation in which anyone has the opportunity to join. In the above articles, it was claimed that the offensive accounts should be shut down because they promoted the viewpoint and ideologies of terrorist organisations. However, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed when considering this slightly dogmatic argument.
Most importantly, these organisations have been labelled deviant based on the opinions of specific governments and individuals. Nobody questions the motives of the American Fox News, for example, which has known Republican affiliations, nor is it problematic that most Western governments and organisations have their own accounts which promote their ideologies. So then why should the propaganda of Middle Eastern deviants be treated any differently? History tells us that the label ‘terrorist’ is relative to which side you are affiliated. The American invasion of Iraq could be considered as the equivalent of a terrorist operation, but because they hold dominant Western viewpoints, they are considered freedom fighters, aiding in the development of Middle Eastern democracy. Therefore, it becomes difficult to discredit the promotion of alternative viewpoints just because they deviate from mainstream ideas. However, if kept unchecked, propaganda can be incredibly dangerous.
But this is where services like Twitter could prove to be invaluable. While it does give anybody the opportunity to propose specific viewpoints and create a following, it also gives opponents the opportunity to challenge these beliefs. Users are able to comment, debate, and hold those individuals accountable for their ideologies. Without this service, these organisations would be operating within closed systems devoid of criticism.
Indeed, if these bodies are forwarding dangerous terrorist ideas, Twitter helps to lessen this threat. Studies have revealed that terrorism’s most powerful weapon is its facelessness and manipulating the fear of the unknown. However, if those organisations associated with terrorists begin using social media, aspects of their anonymity begin to dissolve, and ultimately they could appear less threatening.
The argument made by American politicians however, is that these accounts often propagate hate speech and threats of violence. Problematically, hate speech is a difficult issue to patrol as there is no consensus as to what it specifically constitutes. In the book, Understanding Words That Wound, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic outline the wide array of thought surrounding offensive speech. Overall, it can be concluded that hate speech and its effects are entirely relative to the victim. Based on this, it becomes very difficult to reach a general consensus on how to deal with offensive statements. In fact, it appears that it is only possible to take action if violence is propagated.
And while violent statements should be taken seriously, they also help create a culture of awareness – consider how different 9/11 would have played out (if it would have played out at all) if its planning had been broadcast on social media. If individuals and governments are made aware of imminent violence, they have the opportunity to prepare and defend themselves. So instead of banning and suppressing such information on a site like Twitter, it could be beneficial to monitor it in order to combat future violence. As Sir Professor Lawrence Freedman has said, “Know, rather than imagine, your enemy“, and Twitter is providing the perfect platform to do so.