Twitter's opaque thinking fails everyone

The company may have been justified in suspending Rose McGowan's account, but its initial refusal to explain why was a mistake.

Matt Winkelmeyer via Getty Images

It seems like Twitter can't go long before finding itself embroiled in a new controversy about how it applies its conduct policies. And yet it's hard not to feel a sliver of sympathy in the face of the latest backlash against the ailing company. In suspending Rose McGowan's account for 12 hours, it might have done the right thing, but in completely the wrong way.

The recent aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein revelations saw a number of actors speak out about their experiences with the powerful producer. Rose McGowan has accused the producer of an attack and is a vocal critic of the wider culture of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood. Using Twitter as a platform, she has spoken to, and about, others in Hollywood who enable such abuse.

On October 12th, Twitter suspended McGowan's account, forcing her to post the news of her suspension on Instagram. The automated message she received explained little -- just that her account violated Twitter's conduct policy, but nothing specific that explained the 12-hour suspension. During that period, the only access she had to the platform was to delete the offending tweet.

Twitter has a policy of not explaining the rationale for its suspensions, presumably out of fear that it will create an unintended precedent. But, half a day after the suspension, the company revealed that it suspended the account because McGowan had publicly posted a private phone number. That is a direct violation of the site's privacy policy (described as "The Twitter Rules"), which includes a blanket ban on publicly sharing personal information.

It's not clear if Twitter gained McGowan's consent before going public, but it was clearly forced to say something. The company had rebuffed all attempts to clarify its position, despite Engadget and other publications asking for comment on the reasoning behind the move. This lack of transparency led to the company being attacked on all sides for its opaque processes, with many users saying that double standards are at work. After all, the president can threaten nuclear war without censure, but Rose McGowan tweets something and it's blocked with unnatural swiftness.

Blocking the tweet was the right thing to do, but everything that came after that was a mistake that began to compound upon itself. Surely there are smarter ways to tackle the issue than just handing down a 12-hour suspension as a punishment. The topic here is clearly divisive, and Twitter needed to handle it carefully rather than following a procedure. Could it not, for instance, have suppressed that one message and then privately communicated its reasoning?

Early Thursday, Twitter told Engadget that it does not "comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons." Fair enough, but that meant that it remained silent for 12 hours while its motivations were left open for speculation by, well, everyone in the world. This highlights the impossible situation that Twitter now finds itself in: How can it be fine with hate speech, racism and the American Nazi Party but be so quick to clamp down on a single woman speaking out against sexual abuse?

In addition to this troubling double standard, there's the concern that moving to block McGowan's account was an anomaly. Writer Natalie Shure pointed out that her phone number was shared by a right-wing extremist last year, and Twitter didn't consider it a violation of its conduct policy. We've spoken before about how inconsistently its conduct policies are treated. Clearly, something has to give.

If this were an isolated incident, Twitter could shrug it off. But it's not -- the site has become an unwelcome place for many. Today, a group of the site's female users are boycotting the site in the hope of forcing its hand in doing better. It probably won't work because Twitter already has the tools to clean up its membership in a heartbeat. In Germany, where the laws on extremism on social media are much tougher, the site blocks all neo-Nazi accounts as a matter of course. In the US? Not so much.