Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign was locked out of its own Twitter account Wednesday for sharing a cellphone video documenting some of the threats made against his life by protesters amassed outside his home. The company’s actions – and its subsequent explanation — is a reminder of the enormous power it has to censor political speech even as it becomes the de facto publishing platform of political candidates and public officials.
Asked to comment on the suspension, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed that “the users were temporarily locked out of their accounts for a Tweet that violated our violent threats policy, specifically threats involving physical safety.” The company then pointed to that policy.
It was a curious explanation. The policy cited by the spokesperson explicitly states that it bans only the “glorification” of violence — or an explicit threat made by the Twitter user themselves. The examples it offers are threats prefaced by phrases such as “I will” or “I’m going to” or “I plan to” along with a threat against a “specific person or group of people.” The company further clarifies that “statements that express a wish or hope” for harm are “not actionable under this policy.”
In this case, the McConnell campaign made no threats of any kind; it merely shared video evidence of witnessed events. Asked about this discrepancy, the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though it later changed its rationale for removing the video to its more expansive “abusive behavior” policy.
Twitter’s action raises critical questions about whether it might begin to suspend access for news organizations and human rights groups that commonly share similar cellphone videos documenting threatening events. The company did not respond when asked whether it would begin to lock the accounts of news organizations that shared the McConnell video or whether it would begin to sanction groups like Black Lives Matter that similarly share such videos.
Twitter has emerged as a major venue for elected officials, celebrities, human rights organizations and ordinary citizens to share threatening experiences, meaning Twitter’s apparent reinterpretation of its policy would have a major impact.
McConnell’s campaign also drew attention to the fact that Twitter permitted the hashtag “#MassacreMitch” to trend nationally without intervening, creating the appearance of a double standard since the campaign interpreted the hashtag as a threat to the senator’s life.
On Friday, as the company faced intense pressure over its removal of the video, it “reviewed this case more closely” and restored access to the account. This has become a common refrain of social media platforms, quietly suspending speech with which they disagree, only to restore it after public scrutiny.
As the 2020 campaign heats up, Twitter’s central role as the preferred publishing platform of America’s elected officials and political candidates means that a Silicon Valley company now decides what speech is permitted and what views are acceptable.
In essence, Republicans have afforded a private company, most of whose employees are known to be liberal, some measure of control over their official government and campaign speech. And as talk among prominent Democrats increasingly turns towards regulating social platforms, they too may find their own speech curtailed.
In the end, the McConnell story reminds us of the enormous dangers inherent in allowing the whims of private companies to dictate speech, particularly that of government officials.