How Twitter's Alt-Right Purge Fell Short

The platform's attempt to ban violent extremists on Monday only created more confusion about the limits of free speech on social media.

Twitter's new policies ban "logos, symbols, or images whose purpose is to promote hostility and malice against others based on their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin." Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The stage had been set for some serious internet drama on Monday. In mid-November, Twitter responded to years of criticism for letting sexual and racial harassment and "hateful" imagery go unchecked – while providing a big, free platform to the alt-right – by rolling out new policies that would be enforced come December 18. While Twitter didn't say that it was targeting far-right extremists, it didn't have to: The new policies took explicit aim at hate imagery – "logos, symbols, or images whose purpose is to promote hostility and malice against others based on their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin," as the company put it – and proscribed not only "specific threats of violence," but even mere association with "groups that use or promote violence against civilians to further their causes." The new regime sounded pretty darn strict: Even Twitter accounts associated with violence "off-platform," out in the real world, could be "permanently suspended."

While the announcement left plenty of room for speculation – for instance, would the President's platform, @RealDonaldTrump, run afoul of the new Twitter protocols? – the consensus on both left and right was clear: The Great @TwitterPurge was coming, and the days of neo-Nazis and their "alt-lite" enablers red-pilling the masses with their vile ideology were numbered. "Remember, remember, the 18th of December," the website Mashable gleefully warned the alt-right.

For a month, white nationalists raged against the imminent dying of their 280-character light. "Their new rules will be to gag anybody who stands up for freedom, or stands up for Donald Trump," Roger Stone (previously banned) told Alex Jones on InfoWars. Extremists made plans for a mass-migration on Monday to Gab, the "alt-Twitter" platform that had already attracted refugees like Milo Yiannopolous and Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer. On Sunday evening, some signed off Twitter in sad anticipation: "So long nationalist Twitter. I regret nothing," said anti-immigrant crusader "Virginia Dare" of the hate group VDARE. "If this is the end, farewell friends and comrades."

In the past, Twitter's rules-enforcement process has been famously sketchy. When Yiannopoulos was stripped of his account in July, for instance, his "violation" stemmed from his urging followers to lob racist and demeaning tweets at Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones – not from the ample helpings of racism and misogyny he'd been dishing out for years. But now, with its new policies, Twitter promised it was getting serious about "safety." Where Twitter users could previously only complain about individual posts, Twitter would now let "civilians" flag accounts they consider to be in violation of Twitter policy. What happened once those complaints are filed – who decides whether an account is warned, or banned, and why – remained murky. But the rules seemed clear, and potentially devastating for the evangelists of the far right.

But 24 hours later, to its great surprise, VDARE still had its Twitter platform. So did America's two most famous neo-Nazis, David Duke and Richard Spencer. So did Jason Kessler, who organized this summer's deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and (on Twitter) called slain activist Heather Heyer a "fat, disgusting communist" whose murder was "payback time." Also emerging miraculously unscathed were the likes of Mike "Enoch" Peinovich, neo-Nazi co-host of The Daily Shoah podcast, who'd transformed his Twitter platform into a parody of "social justice warrior" accounts in time for the purge. Meanwhile, popular alt-lite mavens like Mike Cernovich ("diversity is code for white genocide"), remained free to promote the conspiracy of the day: the thinly sourced rumor that anti-fascists caused the Amtrak train derailment by pouring concrete on the tracks. Many far-right extremists were left wondering aloud why they'd been spared, and sounding a little disappointed. "I have to be the worse Nazi on the planet if I can't even get permabanned during the great #Twitter Purge," lamented W.O. Cassity.

By the end of Monday's much-expected carnage, only a small fraction of far-right extremist platforms had been "gassed," as some neo-Nazis quipped. Running tallies were maintained on both the digital left and right, and ultimately included about 20 prominent leaders and groups who seemed to have been selected at random. While the purge spared Spencer and Duke, it took down neo-Nazi groups like the up-and-coming Traditionalist Worker Party along with the "lost cause" nostalgists of the neo-Confederate League of the South. Twitter suspended the nationalist Britain First accounts from which Trump rewtweeted three inflammatory anti-Muslim videos last month, but exempted the most famous of British white nationalists, Nick Griffin, who had predicted that "libtard intolerance" would doom his platform. Similarly, the rarely updated Proud Boys Magazine, the official vehicle of the "Western supremacist" fraternity, fell afoul of Twitter's new policies, while Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes was left to spread the word to his 240,000 followers.

While Twitter's new actions were designed to "send a message" to neo-Nazis, their seeming randomness only fueled the alt-right's sense of "white victimhood." While some of the banned groups certainly fit into the "violent" category, others – like alt-right intellectual guru Jared Taylor and his white-supremacist group, American Renaissance – had been relatively well behaved on Twitter. For some, this was evidence that Twitter wasn't banning "violence," but ideas. As "Matt Semite" tweeted on Monday, Taylor had gotten the ax "despite never trolling or suggesting violence!" For him, it was proof that Twitter was conducting an ideological sweep: "A calm, well-spoke, genteel man saying the 'wrong' ideas is far more terrifying to the Left than trolls are."

But there was no discernible pattern to be found in Twitter's first day of trying to make itself, in the company's words, "a safer place." Left-wing activists, perhaps predictably, were left just as puzzled and unsatisfied as their foes on the right:

There was only one important Twitter constituency that found nothing to criticize: Wall Street. In a striking coincidence, news of the crackdown (combined with a bullish report from J.P. Morgan) sent Twitter stock prices "soaring" to a year-long high on Monday, as TechCrunch reported

Perhaps that was what Twitter intended all along – a profitable and well-publicized "purge" of its vilest accounts. The cost, in terms of traffic, was certainly low: Among the platforms that got off scot-free on Monday, after all, were the alt-right's most popular Twitter handles. But Twitter has now opened what its competitor, Gab, called "a pandora's box," noting: "It will never be enough. There will now always be calls for person X, Y, and Z to be banned." And in the long run, the platform may find that it sold out its single most valuable asset: its long-cherished reputation as a purveyor of free speech. First Amendment expert Susan Benesch, an American University professor and founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, is among those who've pointed out the irony of an ideological purge being undertaken by the site that has long hyped itself as the "free speech wing of the free speech party."

Barely a week before #TwitterPurge commenced, CEO Jack Dorsey, while campaigning unsuccessfully to preserve "net neutrality," had retweeted a corporate proclamation that read in part: "Twitter stands for freedom of expression." After Monday's half-hearted crackdown, it's anybody's guess what Twitter stands for now. Except, that is, for short-term profit.