Twitter Permanently Suspends (Then Unsuspends) Lawyer For Telling NRA Supporters To 'Fuck Off' And 'Own The Death'

from the seems-a-bit-harsh dept

For all the talk of how Twitter supposedly is banning conservatives left and right (it’s not), the company is actually dealing with the impossibility of handling content moderation at scale. Adequately determining which content is “good” and which is “bad” is an impossible task.

Let’s take an example case, which — at the very least — should show that Twitter isn’t just banning conservatives. The pseudonymous defense lawyer known as “bmaz” is probably known to many readers here. He’s been a long-time co-author of the Empty Wheel blog with Marcy Wheeler. He’s also a prolific and emotional tweeter. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I do not. When I do not, he doesn’t shy away from letting me hear about it, often expressing his opinions strongly — which is something I’ve always appreciated about bmaz. He may not be polite, but he’s direct and doesn’t hide his true feelings.

And as of last week he was gone from Twitter. According to Scott Greenfield, bmaz has been “permanently” banned from Twitter. Why? Because he told a bunch of NRA supporters his general feelings towards their position, with two of them being “Own the death you piece of crap” and “You too are a fucking idiot asshole. As are your whole 62 followers. Fuck off.”

If you can’t see that, it shows the two tweets quoted above (both directed at a short list of NRA spokespeople or supporters, as part of what appears to be an ongoing thread — though there’s no way to check that now). It also shows Twitter giving its reasons for cutting bmaz off.

You account, bmaz has been suspended for violating the Twitter Rules.

Specifically, for:

Violating our rules against abusive behavior. You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.

It also warns him against trying to set up an alternative account.

Now, if you were to believe the prevailing narrative among some, Twitter only bans conservatives, not people angrily tweeting at a bunch of NRA folks. But here, it did the opposite. I have trouble seeing how the two tweets in question constitute “targeted harassment” or any sort of “attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.” I mean, among the people the tweet was directed at was Dana Loesch who famously starred in some trolling NRA ads warning the media, athletes, and liberal politicians that their “time is running out.” In another ad, Loesch warns that liberals will “perish in political fire.”

Those seem a bit more harassing and intimidating than “own the death” and “fuck off,” but what do I know?

Anyway, the point here isn’t to say that Twitter is bad at this (though, it is). Rather it’s to point out that any large social media platform is going to be bad at this. There is no good way to moderate content at scale without making lots of mistakes. In isolation, these tweets certainly appear angry and rude, but without much trouble I could find a dozen similar tweets in various flamewars that are happening on Twitter as we speak. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost my cool and told folks on Twitter to “fuck off” as well. It happens.

bmaz appealed his suspension, and that’s already been rejected as well, with Twitter now giving him a totally different response as to why he was banned:

Your account has been suspended and will not be restored because it was found to be violating Twitter?s Terms of Service, specifically the Twitter Rules against hateful conduct.

It is against our rules to promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.

Again, nothing he did appears to involve promoting violence against anyone or threatening people on any of those bases. Instead, he was just venting at people who he believed were idiots. As Scott Greenfield notes:

Disagree with what @bmaz thinks of guns all you want. Disagree with @bmaz?s way of expressing himself. Or agree with him. It doesn?t matter. There was no violation of the terms of service, no targeted harassment, no ?attempt to silence? someone else?s voice. There was certainly no violation on the basis of race, etc., unless the mere hint that a woman (and just because the handle says it?s a woman, does that make it so?) was on the receiving end converts all make speech into a sexual assault.

Greenfield asks people to go on Twitter and speak up for bmaz, and ask Jack Dorsey to reverse the ban — which is probably a good idea (though it’s not Jack personally making these calls). And it appears to have worked. As of last night bmaz was back on Twitter, though he notes he has no idea how or why. It seems likely that a bunch of people asking Twitter “what the fuck” probably helped.

But there’s a larger point here. When people keep demanding that Twitter “do something” to handle some of the very real problems of abuse and harassment on its site, they have to recognize that “doing something” that doesn’t involve some really bad mistakes is effectively impossible at the size and scale that Twitter operates at. It’s going to make big mistakes, and it’s going to make them frequently. That’s not because Twitter is bad or that the people who work there are bad. It’s not that there’s a “conservative bias” at Twitter (which should be evidence given the players in this particular story). It’s that this is an impossible task. Twitter, I’m sure, has some technology tools and some humans trying to review a ton of content, and rather than lots of obvious cases of black and white, the vast majority of them will land in a gray zone. And there’s literally no way that anyone can build in “context” into reviewing these kinds of moderation choices, because understanding the context is next to impossible, not to mention incredibly time consuming (especially when that context may involve things totally outside of Twitter).

Twitter almost certainly made a mistake here, but the point isn’t to scream that Twitter is awful because it made a mistake. It’s to recognize that when we suddenly demand that private companies be in charge of regulating speech, don’t be surprised when they do it badly — because that’s the only way to moderate content at scale. Mistakes will be made — both false positives and false negatives — and at the scale of the users and content on a platform like Twitter, it’s going to impact lots and lots of people.

So, sure, when someone who shouldn’t have been gets suspended, feel free to call out Twitter for its mistakes. But don’t expect that there’s some magic wand that will suddenly make anyone (Twitter or any other company) suddenly able to actually do a good job at content moderation at scale.

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Comments on “Twitter Permanently Suspends (Then Unsuspends) Lawyer For Telling NRA Supporters To 'Fuck Off' And 'Own The Death'”

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TKnarr (profile) says:

Trolls and false reports

It’s not the size or scale that makes content moderation hard, it’s a basic fact of customer service: the trolls and idiots are louder and more active than the reasonable people. Ask anyone who does forum/content moderation (MMO GMs are a really obvious group) and they’ll surely tell you that the majority of the reports of "bad" content are false reports filed by people with an axe to grind. That means that any content moderation system has to be based on the assumption that false positives will always outnumber everything else simply because of who’s generating them, and right now none of the systems in place anywhere even address false positives let alone assume they’ll be dealing with them in bulk.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: In re: “false positives”

No system will ever be able to adequately deal with false positives because no system can ever be “trained” to understand context. A bunch of racists reportbombing a tweet in support of Black Lives Matter and a bunch of “lefties“ reportbombing one of Donald Trump’s tweets will initially look the same to the system.

As a hypothetical, assume I use the anti-gay slur “faggot” in a discussion of people opposed to LGBT rights. I use the word in a context of discussing the word itself, not as an insult. No automated filter system will ever be able to tell the difference between my usage and the insulting usage because no automated filter can ever be trained to understand context.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Trolls and false reports

It’s not the size or scale that makes content moderation hard, it’s a basic fact of customer service: the trolls and idiots are louder and more active than the reasonable people.

Well, it’s both.

Trolls and idiots are a lot easier to moderate on a forum with 70 users than one with 70 million users.

On the forum with 70 users, the moderators are members of the community; they know the people involved, understand the context of the discussions, and are familiar with the particular community’s jargon and inside jokes. Their moderation decisions won’t make everybody happy — there will always be some people complaining about overmoderation and some complaining about undermoderation — but they will be grounded in an understanding of who these users are, how they think, and how they’ve behaved in the past.

It’s not feasible to have that kind of personal touch to moderating a forum at Twitter-scale. When someone reports a tweet, it goes to somebody who almost certainly isn’t familiar with the poster, the context, the person who’s reporting it, or what the motivation for reporting it might be. It’s cost-prohibitive to achieve the same kind of personalized, well-informed moderation that you get on smaller forums. Let’s assume that hypothetical forum I mentioned, with 70 users, has 5 moderators. At Twitter scale, you’d need 5 million to get that same moderator-to-user ratio. And that still wouldn’t be equivalent, because even if every 5 moderators are responsible for keeping an eye on 70 Twitter users, they’d certainly see interactions with, and reports by, other Twitter users who weren’t part of that group of 70.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Trolls and false reports

Also, if the online world was made up of such small forums, as there would not be enough people to set up and run forums needed to give a sizeable fraction of humanity an outlet.

How many people do you know that cannot deal with problems with their personal machines or smart phones, never mind a public facing server?

Anonymous Coward says:

How can anyone claim that Twitter does not have a progressive bias when the company’s own rules of behavior has a distinctly progressive bias? One example would be the ban on criticism of homosexual and transgender lifestyles, something conservatives consider a form of mental illness and/or depravity. (conservatives don’t consider lifestyle choices to constitute a "protected class") while progressives consider such criticism hate speech. And not just conservatives have been whacked by Twitter’s "anti-hate" rules, terf feminists have been banned from Twitter for expressing their opinion that "men are not women."

At least Jack Dorsey seems willing to examine some of these inconsistencies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If "progressive bias" means "don’t be an asshole to those different from you just because they’re different"

Except when it comes to neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Trump supporters, military veterans, etc, etc, and perhaps anyone suspected of being a closet supporter. For them, being an asshole (or worse) is not just allowed, it’s encouraged.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It’s sometimes fun to play Devil’s Advocate just to point out people’s hypocrisy. (And instead of answering the question, they get mad and attack).

Nazis (if they even really exist today) are one of the few remaining boogeyman that people are allowed –and encouraged– to hate. Pedophiles and zoosexuals are another group that have no rights (yet). People will talk about the need for "tolerance" toward certain historically disadvantaged groups but in the same breath express hatred toward other historically disadvantaged groups, and not see any hypocrisy whatsoever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 You godwined yourself good bro

Nazis are not and never have been “historically disadvantaged” bro. And yeah most of civilisation has a pretty strict “no genocide” policy. So kindly take your little troll shitshow of a busted ass argument out the door. The adults has business to attend too.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3

It’s sometimes fun to play Devil’s Advocate

The devil has enough advocates; he does not need you advancing his work. Besides, playing that “game” is easy mode. Advocating for the good in the world? Now there is the challenge.

People will talk about the need for "tolerance" toward certain historically disadvantaged groups but in the same breath express hatred toward other historically disadvantaged groups

Nazis, pedophiles, and bestiality enthusiasts all commit acts that cause harm to others for practically no reason other than to satisfy their own depraved urges. They deserve no special rights for being (justifiably) considered the dregs of society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"…pedophiles, and bestiality enthusiasts all commit acts that cause harm to others for practically no reason other than to satisfy their own depraved urges."

I was informed that these two groups, like LGBT people, just deviated from what society calls "normal" sexual attraction.

Who do sheep farmers harm? Are pimps losing income because of ewe?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5

I was informed that these two groups, like LGBT people, just deviated from what society calls "normal" sexual attraction.

Children and animals cannot consent to sex, whereas LGBT adults can. Whatever game you want to play by likening LGBT people to rapists of children and/or animals, you can go play it somewhere else.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7

You can take it as a sign that I refuse to play the game you want me to play. If you tell me squares are now circles, I could debate you for days about how circles are still circles…or I could tell you “fuck you, they’re circles” and be done with that farce. Your insinuation that LGBT people existing is even remotely the same thing as sexually abusing either a child or an animal is bullshit — and it is your position that is indefensible because you cannot point to anything that directly and definitively links being queer to being a pedophile or an animal rapist. (You made the implication; you have to back it up.) Rehash that argument again and you will not receive a reply. Your game is over.

digitari says:

Re: Re: Re:8 point of order...

LBGTQ community claim to be "normal" by stating they are "born that way" not "they give consent" so, which is it Stephen, are they born that way or do they choose, you are saying they choose, which contradicts LBGTQ doctorine.

So pedo choose and LBGTQ are born that way?

Logic fail

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:9

Pedophiles do not choose their paraphilic sexual preference; it is self-discovered. In only that specific way, it is phenomenologically similar to both homosexuality and heterosexuality.

But whereas homosexuality is no longer listed as a paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders¹, pedophilia — a.k.a. “pedophilic disorder” — remains listed as such. Consensual sexual acts between mature adults, regardless of sexual orientation, generally do not harm or traumatize those involved; sexual acts between a pedophile and a child, on the other hand, can harm and traumatize the child. And while exposure to the mere existence of gay people will not turn anyone gay, a pedophile molesting a child does increase the likelihood that the child will themselves become a pedophile.

A circle is a circle, not a square; a paraphilia is a paraphilia, not a sexual orientation. Whatever game you wanted to play is over.

¹ —  It is now regarded as a “variant[ ]of normal sexuality”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Please explain how the act of downloading or possessing pedophile anime causes harm to anyone (and if so, who?) … or are such prosecutions a justified way for legal authorities to identify, punish, and maintain lifelong monitoring of people who are considered at risk for potentially committing unspecified crimes against actual children?

The same kind of thought-crime argument could be made for Keyboard Nazis in Germany, where just downloading a song or expressing the wrong opinion online (even sarcastically) could lead a curious or trollish person to a stiff prison sentence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I think what he’s trying (badly) to say is that Twitter has double standards depending on whether you are a garden variety asshole, or a white supremacist level asshole, or POTUS grade asshole. And possibly complaining that garden variety asshole get treated most harshly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

White supremacists, when being assholes, are assholes to those whose skin isn’t white. They’re still assholes and violate any terms of service with a "progressive bias". How Trump hasn’t been banned for the same reasons is a mystery. If anything, his continued presence on Twitter indicates there is no progressive bias.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

How Trump hasn’t been banned for the same reasons is a mystery.

Not really. He has lots of money, lots of power, would throw a massive tantrum were the rules to be applied to him, and is petty enough that it’s all but a given that he would try to get revenge in some way(which, given the first two points, would be problematic for the company).

bob says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

I, for one, enjoy that twitter allows Trump to stay on. It allows people to gather more evidence of how incompetent and backwards thinking he is.

I do wish people would stop hanging on every word of the imbecile. Its not news worthy every single word he says. Just keep a record and ignore his childish rants, then use the info to prosecute him and his counteract his policies later on.

But unfortunately too many people believe his empty rhetoric and postings as objective truth.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Here is the difference between LGBT people and, as you put it, “neo-Nazis, white nationalists, [and] Trump supporters”:

LGBT people existing does not cause harm to anyone. The groups you named have beliefs that, when put into action, cause harm to the targets of those actions (e.g., Heather Heyer’s death; a domestic terrorist group illegally detaining people at the southern border.) If the choice comes down to who deserves to be treated like assholes, the groups you named are far more deserving of that “honor”.

cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Who attacks veterans? Seriously, since the end of Vietnam when returning vets were spat on and called baby killers, veterans and soldiers of what conflict have been treated as anything less than American heroes by the general public? And don’t you dare say something stupid like flag burners or anthem kneelers are disrespecting or hating veterans and the military. The American public is completely unwilling to have a reasonable conversation about the rate of sexual assault occurring within the ranks and if there’s anything intrinsic to military life that drives it. We treat our military like infallible heroes instead of flawed humans equally capable of error and evil as the rest of us. Go on with that bullshit. You think there’s a war on police too right?
You are deliberately ignoring the fact that these vocal Trump supporters, self proclaimed conservatives who share only some actual conservative views, are trying to push hateful beliefs and misdirected anger as mainstream, harassing already marginalized groups, in the context that violates those terms of agreement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You forgot to mention Congress and their obvious disdain for our veterans as evidenced by the always underfunded Veterans Administration. Why this is not part of the military budget is a mystery and why do they need their own hospitals … so that the citizens are not exposed to the horrors of the aftermath of warfare?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It is the same bullshit of the petty authoritarian lousey "strict teacher" dual meaning of respect of "respect is earned followes by demanding it" and "give respect to get respect" where respect for them means "beung treated as an authority" and for you it means "being treated like a person".

All such people need to take a long walk off a short pier.

michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As a conservative, I’m all for homosexuals and transgenders having the same rights and protections as any other class.

You seem deeply confused about what "conservative" actually means. There hasn’t been a conservative in the Republican party for decades.

You might want to stop watching Fox News for awhile and try actually educating yourself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“As a conservative, I’m all for homosexuals and transgenders having the same rights and protections as any other class.”

Actually bro you are the one who is badly confused as to what a “conservative” has been for the last 30 years bro.

“There hasn’t been a conservative in the Republican party for decades.”

No I’m pretty sure that where they all hang out bro. Unless they are closet fascists; then they call themselves Libertarians.

Sorry your party abandoned you bro. But one of the bedrock platforms of modern conservatism is putting the gay genie back in the closet.

cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Libertarians are "closet fascists"? While you are probably right that the flavor of conservative Michael fits is libertarian, you have no clue what a fascist is. Please, name one common libertarian policy goal or talking point that has any underlying fascist connection. Even those of us who are borderline anarchist still believe in the non aggression principal, which means basically that so long as your actions do not infringe on the rights of anyone else, it’s nobody’s business.
The right has a bunch of fascist who want to regulate your bedroom, yet think personal responsibility is the end all be all to one’s success and survival. The left has a bunch of fascist who want to regulate your wallet and protect you from everything including yourself. And they both have their cronies that distort the capitalist system so that no amount of bootstrap tugging will improve life, while risks and failure are regulated to the point of discouraging taking chances and innovation that bring success. Libertarians may not know or agree what amount of rules and regulations are necessary for harmonious society, but we know individual freedom allows the most people to determine the best solutions for themselves.
Feel free to attack our policy ideals, not all of them are reasonable or workable. But save your fascism accusations for those who think they know better than the individual what bathroom they should be allowed to use, or those who think plastic straws and bags must be banned with out any consideration of all the unintended consequences.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sure it is, everyone knows that sexuality is a choice(why, as a red-blooded american patriot I fondly remember the heavy deliberation preceding when I chose to be straight), and even were that not the case(which of course it is) it’s absolutely a choice to act as though there’s nothing wrong with being gay and showing absolutely no shame in being open about being gay, in sharp contrast to straight people who have the decency to keep that sort of thing strictly behind closed doors.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

If only those poor people he yelled at had some sort of "feature" that would protect them from his mean words… oh wait they do, but its much more fun to abuse a stupid system to "win".

They could have blocked him, muted him, but instead they needed to "win" and Twitter is incapable of thoughtful response. Someone complains, Twitter jumps leaving the target to deal with the fall out.

HOLY SHIT they modeled their system after the DMCA!

How can someone look at the raging trashfire that is DMCA notices & think we need to apply this to more things??

The old adage is not to trust online reviews completely because people who had a great experience RARELY bother to post so those who do post had issues & expect something to happen as they scream into the void.

Twitter can’t figure out what it is doing because Jack says one thing, the rules say another, some reviewers don’t give a shit b/c they have 500 more complaints to handle in the next 30 minutes, if someone has power/position the rules ARE applied differently and the end result is the shitshow we have today.

Of course Jack’s been starving himself & taking hallucinogens and has decided we shouldn’t interact with people but with "issues" as if this will put out the dumpster fire.

There is a difference between threatening to slit someones throat & calling them out for being ghouls you feel are cashing in on tragedy they contribute to. They problem is now if someone hits the complaint button it is treated as if telling someone to fsck off is the same as threatening to shoot them in the head b/c their feels are hurt… Twitter is magically blind to the idea that the report skinner box didn’t help them target the actual bad actors it just rewards them points for reporting first.

Imagine if the first response wasn’t oh yes we will ban them because you feels were hurt but instead the system suggested block/mute. Freedom of speech means being able to say shit, doesn’t mean others have to listen & it sure as hell doesn’t say punish people if your feels were hurt.

FMHilton (profile) says:

Banning and locking

I, too, was recently banned by Twitter. It wasn’t a racist, or incendiary thing, either.

I got banned for calling Tomi Lahren a ‘blonde bimbo’ (in the third person, no less) in a tweet.

My account was locked for having offended the community in whatever way it offended them.

No shit.

Twitter is real bad at this. I’m not apologizing to her or Twitter, nor am I going back.

They’re banning the wrong people for the wrong reasons while Donald Trump can threaten entire groups of people or insult dead heroes to his heart’s content.

Just don’t describe his cult followers with nasty names or else you’ll be banned, too.

They obviously have never heard of the 1st Amendment and if they have, they certainly don’t prove it.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


The First Amendment applies to the government attempting to punish you for, or prevent you from using, your right to free speech. Twitter is not a government entity; using Twitter is a privilege, and Twitter can revoke that privilege at any time for damn near any reason. This has been your lesson for the day. Now go to the corner and think about what you’ve done.

FMHilton (profile) says:

" The 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to a businesses. Only government. Twitter can ban whomever they want, for any reason, or even no reason whatsoever. Businesses can do whatever they like on filtering and censoring."

This is true. I know that rule. But when Twitter is trying so terribly desperate to ban hate speech of any type, the most egregious tweeters are ignored and then the rest suffer the consequences.

Meanwhile, you can go on there and retweet all the hate you want and you’ll get a pass. Say something even slightly naughty about a Republican bobble head and you get shut down.

I think Twitter’s time in the limelight is over and overdue.

Another useless experiment in appealing to the masses-where the masses consist of trollbots and mass retweeters.

It’s a wonder that they’ve not been hacked yet-unless you consider the Russian trollbots to be hacking it actively every day.

Which the Mueller Report did. In detail.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But when Twitter is trying so terribly desperate to ban hate speech of any type, the most egregious tweeters are ignored and then the rest suffer the consequences.

It’s almost like it’s difficult for Twitter to make even-handed, fair decisions over millions of tweets with constant political pressure to "Do Something."

Twitter used to be very light-handed with the bans. And the white-trash nazi’s jumped in en masse. Now the pendulum swings and they are swinging the ban-hammer like crazy. And people still complain "Too many bans" and "Not enough bans."

It’s a stupid service, I don’t see the point of using it. But I really don’t see the point of complaining that they are inconsistent.

What they can and should be is transparent about the bans, and they should provide a clear method of contesting the bans.

FMHilton (profile) says:

One last comment to leave

Just this:
Jack Dorsey went to visit Donald Trump the other day. Donald Trump complained he was losing followers. Jack said nothing to dispel the notion that Donald Trump can do damn well whatever he wants and get away with it:

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