from the pure-evil dept
Nearly half a decade ago, we wondered publicly what a company like Twitter, a self-proclaimed advocate of free and open speech, would do if confronted by a government that is anything but. In that post, Mike discussed how Twitter had been used to rant against the government in Saudi Arabia, and wondered what would happen if Saudi Arabia decided to make such speech illegal. But what if it's not direct government action but that of other users that threatens such speech? While we have seen some governments routinely punish internet speech they don't like, we're now seeing signs of non-government individuals getting into the racket as well, as a way to silence the kind of barely-progressive speech a company like Twitter would likely say it wants to protect.
Late Sunday night, Twitter user @old_gaes tweeted a screenshot of one of @Pharaohoe’s tweets from February, which had replaced the word “domain” in a verse from the Quran with a slang word for vagina.
“This is the end of another atheist and we should continue exposing every Arab atheist child to their parents who do not know of their atheism,” @old_gaes wrote in Arabic above the tweet.
Several friends of @Pharaohoe on Twitter told The Daily Beast that she is 16 years old and lives in Kuwait.
@old_gaes has apparently been making a habit of this sort of thing, seeking out citizens of countries that would severely punish speech deemed to be blasphemous or in support of the LGBT community and reporting any speech like that, or encouraging followers to report it, to the authorities. That appears to be the only kind of tweeting the account does, in fact. Where this kind of harassment has very real consequences in nations like the United States, those consequences are not nearly as severe as might occur in other countries. And, lest you think that this kind of doxing nonsense would go unseen by the Islamic governments in question:
Dubai’s verified police account tweeted back to @old_gaes on Monday morning, asking him to “kindly send the details” about potential blasphemy along to a specific email address.
On Monday, @Pharaohoe tweeted “they fucking found me,” “im gonna puke,” then “i’m deactivating guys.” She then deleted her account.
In addition, there are many followers of this Twitter account and others like it, creating a network of like-minded individuals who could potentially out those using Twitter as a platform for speech. The targets mostly appear to be women in Islamic nations who make statements of atheism or of a faith other than strict Islam, or who make any noises in support of LGBT rights. And, according to those witnessing this doxing, Twitter isn't doing much about it.
“Twitter is absolutely useless. They don’t take this sort of thing seriously,” said the woman who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
“He’s so dangerous,” said Afra. “I don’t know how his account is still up.”
And, yet, what is Twitter to do? Certainly continued harassment can and should be addressed, but the fact is that Twitter operates internationally, including in countries where the law is not as friendly to secular values as it is in America. If the law in Dubai, for instance, is that blasphemous speech on Twitter should be reported and punished, then Twitter would be walking an interesting line in banning or blocking accounts for doing so. It could try to pull access from those countries, of course, but that would be technically challenging, wouldn't be in its business interests, and would only result in denying those people any voice at all. That doesn't seem like a likely solution. Attempts to get clarity from Twitter itself on how it would want to handle situations like this haven't resulted in much information.
When The Daily Beast reached out to Twitter to ask how accounts like @Old_gaes were allowed to remain active despite consistent reports of harassment, a spokesperson said that “we do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons.”
When asked to “better outline how Twitter assesses threats to personal safety” after a violation of the rules that could leave its users in danger, the company did not respond to repeated requests at press time.
And so we have a speech tool co-opted by those wishing to oppress speech, with the company behind the tool seemingly paralyzed as to what to do about it. The good news is that, whatever steps backwards like these may occur, the flourishing of options for free and open speech typically also results in often unexpected change, however slow that change might occur.