First They Came for the Checkmarks

A few weeks ago I wrote about Twitter’s new tweet police, the recently-formed “Trust and Safety Council” that was created to make people feel “safe” on Twitter. Some of the organizations that sit on this “council” are praiseworthy—there are a few anti-sex trafficking groups, for instance—but then there are some more questionable choices: GLAAD, for instance, which led a veritable pitchfork mob against Phil Robertson a few years ago for his rather anodyne (if colorful) Christian estimation of homosexual behavior. The council also features Feminist Frequency, a “video webseries” that “explores the representations of women in pop culture narratives.” Its founder, Anita Sarkeesian, was a guest speaker at the United Nations’s pro-Internet censorship UN Women event last year, and in any event–not to go on and on about it–if a digital advocacy organization has the word “feminist” in its title, it’s probably a fair-to-middling assumption that it’s in favor of some kind of censorship.

That’s the kind of folks Twitter has on its new “council:” not exactly the type of people you want deciding an social media platform’s speech policy. As I wrote, it’s reasonable for right-leaning people on Twitter to wonder if maybe our days on that platform are numbered. If that sounds a bit paranoid to you, well, there are troubling signs that Twitter is undergoing some kind of strange and foreboding regime change already. Two events from this weekend suggest it.

The first is the suspension of Robert Stacy McCain. McCain is an ardent anti-feminist; his shtick is so single-minded and repetitive, in fact, that he’s really almost not worth returning to after you’ve read him a few times. I do not particularly care for McCain’s modus operandi; I have always found his criticisms of feminism just angry enough to be unpleasant, and in any event—as bad as modern feminists genuinely are—there are other things to worry about. But that’s really just my personal preference; lots of people seem to like him, and I have never once seen anything written by McCain that could be construed as threatening or worrisome in a violent or pathological way. In spite of that, he’s been suspended; as he claims it, his suspension came “unexpectedly, and without explanation.” Since it’s reasonable to assume that McCain did not suddenly turn into a violent, intimidating psychopath (and since nobody has produced any evidence whatsoever to that effect), we must conclude that he was suspended purely for ideological reasons: someone didn’t like something he wrote, and so they gave him the boot.

The second thing that happened this weekend is somehow more troubling. For a brief period of time, John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, lost his blue “verified” checkmark on Twitter. Shortly thereafter, Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review, apparently lost his too. For those of you who aren’t on Twitter, a “verified” checkmark is like an identity badge for famous people, so that users can be sure that it’s the “real” version of that famous person and not a fake account.

After a minor uproar, both John and Jonah had their checkmarks restored. This is, to say the least, a very strange occurrence: those checkmarks don’t simply disappear, after all, and there is plenty of reason to believe that this was a proactive thing, not an accidental one. And it’s worth pointing out that Twitter does in fact have a history of “de-verifying” outspoken conservative voices: the platform recently “de-verified” Milo Yiannopoulos, the rather bracingly outspoken Breitbart editor whose criticism of feminism are just as vicious as are Robert Stacy McCain’s.

It is not unreasonable to surmise that maybe—not definitely, but maybe—the “de-verification” of John Podhoretz and Jonah Goldberg was a kind of test-run to see if anyone would really notice the removal of the checkmarks of two prominent conservative commentators. What are the other plausible explanations? That some staffer at Twitter just happened to stumble into the back-end controls of JPod’s account and accidentally flipped off the “verified” switch? That some unbidden technical glitch knocked Jonah’s blue checkmark off for a few minutes before popping it back on? These things are entirely possible—but, as E.G. Marshall said in 12 Angry Men, they’re not very probable.

With these things considered—McCain’s inexplicable suspension, and what appears to be a growing pattern of de-verifying conservatives—it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Twitter may become a hostile place for conservatives very soon, and in fact more quickly than even the more cynical among us imagined. Anyone who thinks this is simply needless worrying is not familiar with the unique difficulties conservatives face in many media channels these days; as I wrote earlier this month, the media are very happy to look the other way when it comes to vicious and frightening rape threats so long as the women being threatened are pro-life and conservative. Is it that hard to imagine that Twitter may be rapidly coalescing around that same kind of knee-jerk leftist bias? It’s actually not hard to imagine at all. Just ask Robert Stacy McCain—oh, but not on Twitter, because you can’t find him there anymore.

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