Michael McFaul says he can say whatever he wants on Twitter because it’s an American platform. Yeah, the very same Twitter that ‘shadowbans,’ silences alternative media, and hosts fake Russian bots that meddle in US elections.
The former US ambassador in Russia lauded Twitter as a supposed champion of the First Amendment to fend off his critics. Apparently, some Russians didn’t like McFaul’s cheering of recent opposition protests in Moscow, so he offered them an indignant and somewhat patronizing rebuke.
“HeyRussians, writing here on an AMERICAN platform, I have a constitutional right to say whatever I want about American or Russian politics,” he tweeted. “No one is forcing you to read what I say. Stop with the demands for censorship. Russian ‘sovereignty’ does not extend to Twitter.”
HeyRussians, writing here on an AMERICAN platform, I have a constitutional right to say whatever I want about American or Russian politics. No one is forcing you to read what I say. Stop with the demands for censorship. Russian “sovereignty” does not extend to Twitter.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) August 11, 2019
The apparent claim that Twitter is a place under exclusive American sovereignty is inaccurate – Twitter, like any global social network, has to comply with national laws to operate in different countries. Even a bastion of free speech like America occasionally asks the tech giant to remove this or that tweet or ban this or that user.
Russia is admittedly more successful in securing such content removals with a 46 percent compliance rate recorded in the second half of 2018. But the US may be proud to be a very efficient extractor of user information from the tech giant. In the same period, 73 percent of over 2,000 American information requests were granted by Twitter. Basically, if you post something bad, Russia wants it erased while the US wants to know who you are – wonder why?
But let’s not be coy. McFaul doesn’t care about those legalities anyway, and he was clearly referring to political speech, not calls to kill all members of a certain ethnic group or threats of revenge rape, which hopefully we all agree have no place on any platform. Sure, one can freely say a lot on Twitter with impunity. For example, share a video showing a protest in Bahrain with a caption: “300,000 Iranians are marching to lynch local Chekists [intelligence officers] – and what have you done for Russia?” Mistakes do happen.
But there are other kinds of speech that Twitter doesn’t tolerate much. For example, peddling a wrong conspiracy theory. You see Russian “active measures” behind every bush and smear every person you don’t like as a ‘useful idiot‘ or a paid Putin agent? Here’s your blue checker and 290,000 followers. You think Muslims and social progressives conspire to undermine your cherished way of life? Banhammer!
Being a news source or a watchdog with an agenda that deviates too much from that of the corporate baseline is also frowned upon by Twitter, especially with a crucial midterm election in sight. Ditto for people like anti-war advocate Peter Van Buren, who happen to get on the wrong side of a person with a dedicated cadre of followers and a good idea of how to game Twitter’s suspension algorithms.
There is also the so-called ‘shadowbanning’ – the alleged practice of hiding unwanted voices from the general public. Many people believe that this is what the self-admitted left-leaning company is doing to conservatives. Are they right? Well, with Twitter’s algorithms protected as corporate secrets and its rules mercurial and labyrinthine, who knows for sure? Maybe not even @jack.
All this Silicon Valley censorship was sent into overdrive after Russiagate. Tech giants were accused of allowing the Kremlin to abuse their platforms to meddle in elections in the US and worldwide, and they rushed to protect democracy from the Moscow meme menace. Maybe it was because being “AMERICAN,” they are true patriots, or maybe they just feared their bottom line would be hurt otherwise.
Isn’t it ironic how after that a US cyber firm faked a Russian interference campaign in an Alabama election by running an army of falsified “Russian” bots, bragged about it, and later was called to write a Congress report on how the Russians were the bad guys?
By Alexandre Antonov
Alexandre Antonov is a journalist based in Moscow.
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