A new Twitter policy intended to safeguard users’ personal photos is being weaponized by conservatives and far-right trolls, who are exploiting the site’s terms of service to get journalists, researchers, and even dick joke purveyors suspended and their work removed.
Twitter’s newest rule, which prohibits sharing private individuals’ photos and videos without their permission, went into effect last Tuesday. It allows individuals to request takedowns of tweets and accounts that share media in which they’re depicted, and can be applied retroactively to any tweet ever sent.
Twitter intended for the rule to “curb the misuse of media to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of private individuals,” noting such harassment “disproportionately impacts women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities.”
But soon after, neo-Nazis, extremists and other members of the far-right began reporting photos of themselves, seeking to scrape evidence of their misdeeds from the internet ― and to punish and impede the researchers, law enforcement and journalists seeking to identify them.
Attendees of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, for instance, are using it to obstruct the work of self-described “sedition hunters.” Same for the white supremacists who participated in the violent 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In one especially egregious case, Samuel Braslow, a reporter for the Beverly Hills Courier, had his account locked because he’d covered an anti-mask protest.
Braslow’s reporting included videos of those participating, including an amusing clip of a mask-less man complaining to a security guard in an upscale mall that “no other group is oppressed like Trump supporters,” while comparing himself to a Black person in the 1940s.
The reporter eventually had access to his account restored, though he says Twitter hasn’t explained why.
Twitter acknowledged in a statement that its rollout had some unintended effects, which it attributed to “a significant amount of coordinated and malicious reports.”
“This week, we expanded our private information policy to include private media of all users on Twitter around the globe in order to offer them the same protections that are afforded to citizens in countries with right to privacy laws,” a Twitter spokesperson said.
“After this was rolled out, we became aware of a significant amount of coordinated and malicious reports, and unfortunately, our enforcement teams made several errors. We’ve corrected those errors and are undergoing an internal review to make certain that this policy is used as intended — to curb the misuse of media to harass or intimidate private individuals.”
It’s unclear how, exactly, the company adjusted its rollout, however, with numerous people still locked out of their accounts.
Vic Berger, a comedian and political satirist, is among those recently locked out of their accounts. His offense: tweeting a Photoshopped version of Rep. Thomas Massie’s (R-Ky.) Christmas card.
The Republican published the gun-centric Christmas missive days after a school shooting in Michigan killed four students and wounded seven more, some severely.
Berger, like many on Twitter, took issue with the card’s timing and message. He opted to satirize it by crudely photoshopping the congressman’s lower half to reveal bare legs, and, if you looked closely, a penis.
A caption accompanying the riff read:
I don’t know why everyone is getting bent out of shape over this beautiful Christmas portrait of Rep. Massie and his family. They’re just God-fearing, proud Americans.
RETWEET IF YOU’RE A PROUD AMERICAN WHO ISN’T AFRAID TO SAY ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS.’
The congressman responded by blocking Berger and apparently reporting the tweet, resulting in Berger’s suspension from the platform.
“Massie is a powerful and scarily influential public figure,” Berger told HuffPost, defending the message. “Satirists shouldn’t have to hold punches and get punished simply because his feelings are hurt.”
While Twitter added a carveout to its new “private media” rule for tweets featuring public figures, depicting a pants-less congressman was apparently over the line.
In an explanation to Berger for his suspension, the company said he’d violated the site’s ban on “privately produced/distributed intimate media.”
That’s apparently different than the site’s ban on non-consensual nudity; given the timing of the action, Berger believes he’s been ensnared by the new private media rule. Twitter didn’t respond to a request for clarification.
“I would understand if it was like, ‘Oh, nudity isn’t allowed,’” Berger told HuffPost, though he noted that a different version of the card, Photoshopped to show the family holding dildos instead of guns, remains on the site.
Berger also doesn’t recall any other penis-related Photoshops of his getting yanked from Twitter in the past, including some of former President Donald Trump and one of Newt Gingrich getting intimate with a pumpkin.
Suspension aside, Berger said the incident ultimately highlights the hypocrisy of conservatives when it comes to free speech.
“If the right really cares about free speech they should be out there supporting this penis picture,” he said. “But for some reason they’re not, and I haven’t had any of the free speech heroes come vocalize about this at all. Ted Cruz hasn’t stepped up to say this is an outrage.”