Twitter Suspends Popehat For Writing About Violent Threats He Received From Another Twitter User

from the wait-what? dept

Twitter has gotten a lot of flack over the years for how it responds to threats and abuse online -- much of it deserved. The company insists that it's gotten much better about this, and now responds much more quickly to inappropriate threats or abuse online. But doing so is often difficult and bound to lead to some really bad decisions. Like one that just happened. Ken White's Popehat account has been temporarily suspended from Twitter. Why? Because he posted a threat he had received from someone else on Twitter to Twitter. Update: after this story started getting some attention, Twitter reversed the suspension and publicly apologized, saying that it was an error.

If you're a regular Techdirt reader, I'm sure you're familiar with Ken "Popehat" White, the blogging lawyer who covers a lot of the same stuff we do, mainly in the free speech realm. Ken has also, a few times, represented us in response to silly legal threats we've received. If you're a Twitter user, you may also be aware that Ken is a prolific and masterful user of Twitter often commenting on the news of the day. He also uses Twitter to do some law 'splaining and to call out bullies and trolls. He's pretty good at it. One such recent bully was a Texas lawyer named Jason L. Van Dyke. We actually wrote about Jason a few years ago when he tried to sue the Tor Project, because some revenge porn site used Tor. We didn't hear much about him until a few months ago. It seems that, somehow, Van Dyke was offered a job as an assistant district attorney in Victoria County. For unclear reasons, that job offer was pulled. Van Dyke was not happy. He proceeds to sue the DA for pulling the job offer.

In the midst of all this, another Twitter user, Asher Langton -- who has an uncanny ability to sniff out people online who are not exactly what they claim to be -- pointing out that it certainly looked like there were very strong similarities between Van Dyke and someone claiming to be a lawyer trolling for business on the white supremacist site Stormfront. There's a fair amount of back and forth between Langton and Van Dyke and then a direct threat from Van Dyke to knock out Langton's teeth. At one point there was this bizarre drama in which Van Dyke gave Langton 24 hours to promise to stop talking about him or promising to come to Langton and punch out his teeth.

24 hours passed and nothing happened.

Anyway... around this point, Ken White steps in and writes up quite the post about Jason L. Van Dyke. It's a good, well researched, thorough and detailed post as you might expect. In response, Van Dyke trains his anger on Ken, and starts tweeting shit about Ken and making similar threats to those he made to Langton (though a bunch of those tweets now appear to have been deleted).

There were other tweets that certainly appeared to imply potential violence against Ken including a meme involving a bullet, that Van Dyke posted to Ken's Facebook thread about one of his posts:

Ken then posts a second story about being sent a truly pathetic "glitterbomb" by someone claiming to be a supporter of Van Dyke's... and then goes on to expose someone who commented about Van Dyke on the earlier post, making Van Dyke out to be some sort of bad ass (or, as Ken puts it "a badass [as] might be imagined by a lonely 14-year-old.") Ken tracks down some evidence suggesting that the comment came from Van Dyke himself or someone working with him (though, very likely Van Dyke himself).

Following that post, Van Dyke sent Ken this email:

If you can't read that, it says:


You listen to me, and you listen good. This ends now and here is how it's going to work. I have deleted my Twitter account because, frankly, I have better things to do than deal with you and your followers. I am going to make you a one-time offer and you get to choose.

  1. I am willing to walk away. Right here. Right now. You remove the libelous blog posts about me and make whatever excuse you want. I really don't care what it is. You will never see or hear from me ever again. We both go about our lives.
  2. You can do what I think you are more than likely to do anyway and simple add this e-mail to your blog post. If you d that, I want to make it very clear what is going to happen. I have a picture of you. I am going to put it on my mirror at home, near my desk, and in my truck. My pure and absolute hatred for you will be unprecedented. My hatred for you will serve as a motivation for me to build an entirely new business and to earn enough money so that, one day, I will be able to make your life such an absolute living hell that I'll be able to hurt you without so much as laying a hand on you. I will make you so miserable and treat you with such extreme and completely unprecedented cruelly that you'll either kill yourself or move yourself and your family to the most remote part of the world you can afford to escape my wrath. The bottom line is that I will not forget you and that there will be retribution. It may take me a year. It may take me 20 years. I may get you on my first try. I may get you on my seventeenth try. But I will never stop.
You will take this offer today or the only thing you will have to know is that, sooner or later, I will come for you.

Jason L. Van Dyke
Attorney & Counselor at Law

So, nice guy, right? Ken posted that email to his blog and to Twitter, noting: "I don't respond well to threats. It's kind of a thing. Sorry, Jason."

And... Twitter suspends Ken's Popehat account for 12 hours. Ken's. Not Jason's. Not the guy doing the threatening. The guy posting about being threatened. It's Twitter's "cool off" suspension, in which your account is still live, but you can't tweet, retweet or like other tweets for 12 hours.

Having seen stuff like this before, I'm pretty sure I know why Twitter did this, even if it's stupid. Twitter's terms of service and "rules" which are incorporated into the terms says that you cannot share private information. In the past I've seen similar suspensions when people post someone else's email that includes phone numbers/addresses and the like. Indeed in a post that Ken just put up on his own blog, Twitter confirms that it's the posting of someone else's info that got him into trouble, though Ken points out that Twitter itself says that it will take context into account. And if you're taking context into account, you have to wonder how it is that Ken gets suspended for highlighting the guy who threatened him, while the actual threatener remains free to post at will.

I asked Ken for a comment on the situation, and he told me:

Twitter is perfectly in its rights to do this. Twitter is a private company with its own free speech and free association rights. I've got no right to post there if they don't want me to post there.

But I think most reasonable people would see this as egregiously stupid, and a sign of a recurrent problem -- the systems that social media platforms put in place to deal with harassment are often dumb, and seem to catch people responding to threats and abuse as often as they catch the abuse itself.

Meanwhile, I'm not deleting the tweet. I wrote about a lawyer and damn-near-active-prosecutor who threatened people who writing about him, and he threatened me. When I wrote more, he threatened more, including that freakish email. That's newsworthy, and I'm not taking it down.

Indeed. We've talked many times about the problems of demanding that platforms police behavior. It's one of those things that seems easy, until you realize just how tricky it is. A trust and safety team dropping in on Ken's conversations wouldn't have the relevant background and is likely to rush through and make a bad decision. So be careful what you wish for when you say platforms should be policing content. They're probably not up to the task.

Filed Under: jason l. van dyke, jason lee van dyke, jason van dyke, ken white, popehat, privacy, private info, suspension, threats, trust and safety
Companies: twitter

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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 3 Aug 2017 @ 5:24pm


    His Twitter account remains active; the last tweet he sent was, as of this posting, ninety minutes ago.

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