Swedish YouTube phenom PewDiePie found this out the hard way this week after his account -- followed by 47 million Twitter users -- suddenly up and disappeared briefly from the social networking service without explanation:
Well, not entirely. According to one of his videos he unverified his own account to protest the admitted pointlessness of the verified process, which itself is often arbitrary.But before that video explanation was posted, a parody Sky News account (unverified, for whatever it's worth) proclaimed that the Youtube star had been unverified because he joined ISIS:
All told, it's believed this Tweet, possibly combined with the parody reference, somehow triggered the suspension at Twitter, which speaks volumes about Twitter's threshold for suspension as it tries to crack down on ISIS' influence on social media. Last month Twitter proclaimed it had shut down 360,000 Twitter accounts for being tied to terrorism, but this latest flub again raises questions about whether the company actually has a solid handle on what it's doing.
Twitter refuses to comment on this or any of its other seemingly-drunk enforcement behaviors, but the company's inconsistency on this front has been on proud display for some time, and the message being sent is anything but clear. Something about how it's ok to threaten to rape and kill women and people of color, but don't joke about ISIS, and whatever you do -- don't post animated gifs of the Olympics:
If you want Twitter to do something about a guy repeatedly threatening to rape you, your best bet is to get him to embed an Olympic clip.
If Twitter doesn't want to begin rivaling some of the great arbitrary shitshows of our age (like oh, Apple's app store approval process) the company needs to get ahead of the problem quickly. Sources told Bloomberg last week that the company was consulting with "an outside council of anti-harassment groups" as it experiments with keyword filters the company hopes gives users more control of violent vitriol aimed in their direction. It also hopes to offer an announcement on improvements to its harassment policy and enforcement.
In the interim, to be safe, you may just want to avoid humor entirely.
Following the season's final game, Rosario was out to dinner with his family and sent a series of crass and offensive tweets about school administrators and his coach:
1. Mr. Isaacs is a b*tch too 2. I hope Coach brown gets f*cked in the *ss by 10 black d*cks 3. Now I can tweet whatever I want and I hope one of y'all mother f*ckers snitch on me 4. Fuck coach browns bitch *ss 5. Finally this b*tch *ss season is over 6. Aiight I'm done y'all can go snitch now like before 7. Oh yea and Mr. DInkel's square *ss 8. AND Ms. Evans b*tch *ss boyfriend too He a p*ssy ass n*gg* tryna talk shit while walking away
Etiquette breach (while at family dinner) aside, school administrators were not happy. They punished Rosario for his tweets under a cyberbullying statute. The text of the statute read as follows:
"A member of the board of trustees of a school district, any employee of the board of trustees, including, without limitation, an administrator, principal, teacher or other staff member, or any pupil shall not engage in bullying cyber-bullying, harassment or intimidation on the premises of any public school, at any activity sponsored by a public school, or on any school bus."[emphasis added]
As you can see from the emphasis Venkat Balasubramani added, this collection of tweets should have remained outside the purview of the policy used to suspend Rosario. But that didn't stop the offended parties from kicking the student out of school. Unfortunately for the administration, Rosario's family took them to court, searching for injunctive relief from the suspension. (Rosario was ultimately allowed to transfer to a different school.) That was denied due to lack of irreparable harm and the school district filed a motion to dismiss. That didn't go quite as smoothly.
Rosario's family brought a "slew of other claims," but most notable is the First Amendment claim, which the court will allow to move forward.
As to Rosario's First Amendment claim, the defendants argued that the speech in question was not protected speech at all because it was "racist, violent, offensive, and hateful." The court (correctly) rejects this argument saying that the only legal basis for the speech in question to possibly be unprotected is obscenity, and this only applies to one tweet.
The court also notes that school administrators can discipline students for off-campus speech, but they need to show "substantial disruption" has occurred oncampus in order to justify suspensions or expulsions. This district's policy covers a very limited area -- Balasubramani points out that its specific wording makes it unlikely to be enforceable against "activities in cyberspace," no matter if these activities happened during school events or on school grounds.
Cyberbullying policies have the built-in potential to cripple free speech, thanks to the general shift towards subjectivity, rather than objectivity. Beyond that, these policies seem to encourage a culture of heightened sensitivity and overreaction in far too many administrators.
There must be something in school administrators' DNA that causes a heightened reaction when they see their name mentioned in social media. The tweets were ill-advised at best and crass, depressing even. But I wonder whether the school would have been better off using this as a teaching moment rather than taking a harsher disciplinary approach that was not necessarily on solid First Amendment grounds.
The fact that the school relied on the cyberbullying statute is telling, and a good illustration that these types of statutes are often used in an unintended manner, to improperly suppress speech. It's a stretch at best to argue that tweets from a private account—that would not have reached the coach or administrators absent their inquiry—somehow amounted to "cyber-bullying".
This last point is also rather crucial. The district punished a student for tweets administrators never would have seen without jumping through some extra hoops. Rosario's Twitter account was private, meaning these were only shared with followers. While the court doesn't agree this gives Rosario an "expectation of privacy" in regards to his claims of Fourth Amendment violations, it does bring into question how much work administrators had to do simply to recover the tweets that offended them so much. It should have been a teachable moment, or at worst, something that could have been ignored.