It took less than a day for neo-Nazis to start gaming Twitter's new policies, exactly as experts, researchers, and anti-fascist activists warned the racists would.
This week, Twitter unveiled a new policy banning “media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted." Twitter is retroactively applying the rules, which allows malicious actors to report material posted by accounts they’re not fans of and game the system to get that material, or the accounts, taken down according to users. The intent of the policy is seemingly good—to limit harassment and protect political dissidents—but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the way this policy was worded made free-speech and anti-fascist actvists worried because of how obviously easy it would be to game it.
These worries were almost immediately proven to be valid. Not long after Twitter unveiled its new policy, one well known neo-Nazi took to Telegram to make explicit what these new rules meant for the far right (as well as anyone else out to game the rules to get back at their enemies).
He listed several anti-fascist accounts afterwards for his followers to target.
One of those listed, Atlanta Antifascists, was brought down shortly after Twitter introduced the new rules. In a statement, the people behind the account said they were taken offline following a post regarding the identity of a “White Student Union” organizer. They weren’t allowed to reinstate their account, they said, until they deleted the post.
“Already, neo-Nazis are using the new policy to attempt to shut down their critics,” their statement read. “Twitter’s policy is an attempt to shield white power and far-right organizers from public scrutiny. It is unacceptable, but unsurprising.”
Some accounts are so gleeful their reporting is working that they’re actively documenting it on the website.
Brigading and bombing accounts with reports is a tactic that has been used for a long time, but bad actors are now seeing it work and applying extra vigour. Multiple accounts that have been targeted have been taken down. Daryle Jenkins, a longtime activist who has been a proponent for using doxxing as a tool to combat racists, was the second person on the neo-Nazi’s list. Speaking to VICE News, he said that he was unsurprised he was listed, as he doxxed this personi in the past.
“It's just this one of those things that just makes you say 'Twitter just keeps giving them these things to use against folks,”' said Jenkins. “And it is not just Twitter, it's Facebook as well. They just keep giving them the tools to go after activists that they're mad at, but anybody that they're mad at.”
Another person behind an account that was targeted by the far-right users told VICE, “it’s just ridiculous to me how Twitter can spin this in any way other than trying to crush community information sharing.”
“It essentially emboldens a neo-Nazi who gets filmed harassing community members to play the victim and whine about unfair depiction,” they said.
Twitter is used by many open-source intelligent (OSINT) reporting communities as a way to amplify their work and to participate in group research. This crowd-sourced research isn’t just used to out neo-Nazis but also in criminal cases—many of the January 6 rioters were identified by open-source intelligent (OSINT) researchers. Kristofer Goldsmith, a veteran and senior fellow with the Innovation Lab at Human Rights First, was immediately critical of Twitter’s policy. He said the western online world is “Facebook and Twitter-centric,” and that if the platform continues to be gamed like this, people will have to use other means.
“If we want to continue this research on Twitter, we're going to have to violate Twitter's terms of service in other ways,” Goldsmith told VICE. “We're going to have to create dummy accounts and we're going to have to do ban evasion.”
Twitter told VICE News, in a statement sent after publication, that its suspension of a photojournalist targeted by the far right was because "our teams took enforcement action in error. We’ve sent a communication to the user noting this error." It also pointed to blog posts about the new policy, which it has been enforcing in countries with right to privacy laws for years. It said that before the broader implementation of this policy, it would have been impossible for it to take down a picture exposing the identity of a rape victim in a country without right to privacy laws, because "Twitter had no policy basis for enforcement."
Jenkins said that moving forward it’s perhaps best for anti-fascists to not rely on Twitter and to make backup accounts and focus on blogs and websites. This already seems to be happening, as the information Atlanta Antifascists had to remove is available on their website but not on Twitter.
"There used to be a time when we all had our own website,” said Jenkins. “We all had our own blogs. We need to go back to that if we're so worried."
This story has been updated to include a statement by Twitter which was sent after the story was originally published.