Here are the reasons I have been suspended from Twitter this year.
1. First, a suspension for G-rated parody videos of Olympic skaters performing to the audiobook from Gone Girl (overturned).
2. Then, a ‘permanent’ ban for posting a screenshot of a violent threat made against me in an unmoderated Mensa group (long story, also overturned by Twitter).
3. The third time was for making a ‘threat’ against what is very verifiably one of my own cartoon characters, the “zamboni twins.”
I have my account back now. Doesn’t that mean that appealing these decisions worked, and that Twitter has a flawed but effective way of keeping its platform safe once a rep can identify context?
You would think that, dear reader, but that’s not what happened. What happened was that Neil Gaiman saved my ass, twice.
What could have prevented these suspensions? Context. What could and should be the reason that Nazis and other hate group leaders are dropped from the platform altogether instead of being repeatedly verified? Context. What ultimately overturned them? A powerful person willing to use their time and influence generously and scare the Silicon Valley dweebs into feeling uncool for pissing off Neil Gaiman.
I guess what I’m saying is that Twitter hasn’t changed, nor has the world’s moral compass.
Outside of certain (ie, discriminatory) circles, the concept of free speech is oblique but generally well understood—say whatever the fuck you want, as long as it is not harmful to someone else. But what’s harm? When does expressing an opinion online cross over into inciting violence and building a community that thrives on it? Twitter has spent years struggling with the subtleties that come with it, and—spoiler alert—they’re doing a shit job of doing anything of substance.
Let’s take Twitter’s choppy recent history with vetting and taking action on hate speech. After a lot of noise was made, it became one of the last social media platforms to take down Alex Jones and Infowars’ accounts and all the conspiracy theory pandering that came with them (they’re now only active on Instagram). They’ve successfully banned other white nationalists and alt-right hate speech inciters like Gavin McInnes (founder of the Proud Boys), Milo Yiannopoulos, David Duke and Anthony Cumia. So…good, right?
Not exactly. Behold: Cumia’s radio show has a persistent presence, known Nazi Richard Spencer’s account remains online, CEO Jack Dorsey has been extremely reluctant to ban white supremacists and have instead verified them, and the question of what is free speech and what is hate speech on the site seems in perpetual flux. Plus, you know, the president.
So Twitter is presented with an issue: it’s not easy to erase someone’s hateful ideology, one who they gave a platform to for the better part of a decade, from a site by getting rid of a single account. Instead, new barely-effective algorithms are put in place to better monitor the site, and more bans are made. Due to the lack of context given by admins to flagged words and a tendency of fringe groups to intentionally misspell or obscure slur words, the wrong people are getting removed from the site, while dangerous people stay.
I love Neil Gaiman, and his work, and as hesitant as everyone should be attaching any individual to an idea, his track record for lifting others up is unquestionable. We have never met, and I don’t know why he has been so generous with his time and power to not just bail me out of reporting a threat against myself, but advocate for me in the midst of the Zamboni Twins scandal. I just know that he graciously has, and though it could go by many names let’s call it the “Neil Gaiman privilege.”
All these bans result from the platform’s complete unwillingness to acknowledge context. For Twitter, it’s about the fact that you said the word—search k*ll or any other vowelless ‘bad word’ for evidence that this is poor practice—with no consideration for the context in which you said it. If you know how to navigate this system, it’s easy for online communities that do intend to cause harm and harass others to thrive.
Here are a handful of other examples of recent bans Twitter has dished out to comedians based on contextless tweets: Demi Adejuyigbe got suspended for threatening to kill a friend who insulted Paddington the bear, Marcia Belsky for jokingly “threatening” a friend who retweeted and replied, and me and my zamboni boys.
The common thread here, if it needs any repeating, is context. There is no harm intended by any of these tweets, and the people who were supposedly targeted by them (assuming they were real in the first place) reached out to Twitter directly to explain the context in which they were written. Underground hate groups thrive and are sometimes even given more leeway than most Twitter users while comedians and their friends have to explain in-jokes. It seems like the algorithm and, when you finally reach a person, the company as a whole are simply trying to appear as if they are taking concerns seriously, without a distinct moral code governing what these bans should be, or how much the company should care about retaining users at all.
So why stay? Twitter is a proven toxic environment that gets worse as it ages. We can and should condemn it as trash now, but it doesn’t mean it was never helpful. When I graduated from college, Twitter was the main reason I was hired for a job writing for the Boston Globe, as evidence of the kind of “millennial voice” (choke, vomit, bad) they mistakenly thought they wanted in their pages. Six months later, it was also the reason I was asked to leave the Boston Globe, after a tweet I wrote about “crushing so hard at an open mic that I cum blood” got referenced on a Boston sports radio show as “the end of journalism.”
We can talk in circles about this, but my unbanning comes down to being in the fortunate position of having an empathetic powerful man advocate on my behalf, lest the platform get bad press from a loyal user. It had nothing to do with context. It had to do with clout, and with power, and with Silicon Valley’s fear of being branded as uncool by someone they respect—a man with power. Friendly reminder to other men: advocating for others to your fellow dudebros fucking works, so use your powers for good.
Oh, and my sincerest apologies to the zamboni twins.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.