- Sinead McSweeney, Twitter’s vice president of public policy and communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, has said it is “no longer possible to stand up for all speech.”
- McSweeney appeared before politicians on Tuesday as part of a wider inquiry into hate speech online.
- Twitter once described itself as the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” – but McSweeney’s remarks show how the firm has had to change to tackle abuse and extremism on its platform.
- Twitter began throwing extremist accounts off its platform on Monday after a policy change around hateful conduct.
Twitter’s first executive in the UK, Tony Wang, described the company in 2012 as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
Now Sinead McSweeney, Twitter’s vice president for public policy and communications in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, has said it’s “no longer possible to stand up for all speech.”
McSweeney appeared before British politicians on Tuesday alongside policy executives from Facebook and Google to explain why it was so easy to find hate speech, extremist content, and inappropriate content across all three platforms.
During the three-hour grilling, McSweeney acknowledged Twitter’s historical support of free speech and explained the firm’s updated philosophy to MPs.
Here’s what she said, emphasis ours:
“I look back over last 5 1/2 years, and the answers I would have given to some of these questions five years ago were very different. Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill-style philosophy. We’ve realised the world we live in has changed. We’ve had to go on a journey with it, and we’ve realised it’s no longer possible to stand up for all speech in the hopes society will become a better place because racism will be challenged, or homophobia challenged, or extremism will be challenged.And we do have to take steps to limit the visibility of hateful symbols, to ban people from the platform who affiliate with violent groups – that’s the journey we’re on.”
McSweeney joined Twitter in 2012, only a few months after Wang made his remarks about free speech on the platform. John Stuart Mill, mentioned in her comments above, was a 19th-century British philosopher who argued for open discussion of any and all ideas – however immoral.
This appears to be the first time a Twitter executive has clarified the firm’s shifting stance toward free speech, though there have been many outward signs that the company is rowing back from its initial radical stance.
After years of criticism for allowing racism, extremism, and abuse to bloom freely on its platform, Twitter began purging accounts affiliated with hate groups.
The leaders of Britain First, a far-right organisation considered a hate group by the British government, were among the first to go. The groups’ leader, Paul Golding, and deputy, Jayda Fransen, had their accounts deleted Monday morning. The white supremacist site American Resistance and its top editor, Jared Taylor, were also barred.
Twitter also started stripping its “verified” blue tick from accounts that didn’t obey its new rules around hate speech, leading both the white supremacist Richard Spencer and the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson to lose verified status.
Asked by MPs why people like Fransen and Golding had been verified to begin with, McSweeney said that the two “should never have been verified” and that Twitter’s “verification was broken from top to bottom.” She said that people outside the organisation didn’t understand verification and that those tasked with verifying accounts didn’t apply the rules consistently.
She added that a new version of the verification system would arrive in the new year.