The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Twitter Jail — UPDATE AND CORRECTION BELOW
In the below article, I assert that Twitter probably isn’t targeting me directly, and that this is merely an example of its broken reporting and appeals system. But shortly after I used my DMs to notify several journalists of the circumstances, Twitter locked me out of the account entirely, contrary to its own procedures. So it looks like Twitter is indeed actively retaliating against me. I, uh, regret the error.
I insulted a man who was spreading anti-Soros falsehoods a day after the synagogue massacre. Twitter suspended me. He’s still posting.
It has become my custom, whenever I find myself incarcerated, to write a column whining about how I am locked up and would prefer not to be. Back in 2011 or thereabouts, for instance, I got into some sort of baroque struggle with the FBI, DOJ, Palantir, and the Kingdom of Bahrain, and as a result ended up spending four years in a federal prison. During that time I wrote a monthly column called the Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison. I would go on to win the National Magazine Award for columns and commentary, which sounds really impressive until you remember I was up against people like TIME’s Joe Klein.
My interlude as a convict commentator basically ended with my release in late 2016, with the exception of four days I spent in jail the following year when U.S. Marshals arrested me on the orders of the DOJ for giving press interviews about the DOJ; naturally I took the opportunity to write one more column. I’ve managed to stay out of the clink ever since, which has been tough, as one of life’s greatest pleasures is being wrongly persecuted and then making sure everyone knows it (this is especially true if you’re neurotic). Meanwhile, it is events and incidents, rather than the underlying causes, that serve to focus our attention, and thus present us with the opportunity to solve the problems festering in the background. The massacre of a dozen Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue, for instance, spurs the attentive to examine fundamentals — to ask themselves what drives men to do such things, yes, but also what sorts of structures and conditions are doing the driving.
The bizarre spate of pipe bombings served to illustrate, among other things, a very specific problem that had certainly been much discussed already, but which this incident may have served to clarify, such that these discussions may perhaps be better informed going forward. The perpetrator, it turned out, had previously taken to Twitter and violently threatened a female journalist based in his area, who reported the threat only to be told by Twitter’s representatives that “context” is important — which is very much true, but perhaps not a particularly helpful argument in such a context wherein a deranged man vows to physically attack a woman and in fact could have easily done so and Twitter refrains from even making him delete the tweet in question.
After the pipe bombings, the journalist — now equipped with an event — was able to shame Twitter into an apology, and into vowing, as they’ve done over and over again in the past, to “do better”.
The problem with events is that we get tired of them and move on; there are other events coming anyway, and we have to focus on them. For those who may have failed to do their part in preventing a particularly dangerous event — such as a man sending a pipe bomb to George Soros and others because he believes the anti-Semitic propaganda he reads on social networks, or another man killing 12 Jews for the same reason — this is a feature, rather than a bug. Twitter took a PR hit last month, but that will fade; and if the choice is between putting in the thought and resources necessary to prevent the platform from facilitating outright Nazism on the one hand, or making more profits on the other, that choice becomes easier when no one is watching.
This is where I come in, with another event that I hope will keep the problem in focus, and perhaps clarify it. The alternative is to wait for yet another massacre, and yet another carefully-crafted statement by Twitter’s public relations people, which have lately taken on the character of an alcoholic’s apologies to his wife, especially given how frequently they come these days.
You see, I have spent the last week in Twitter jail, meaning that Twitter has decided that I have broken a rule and has thus restricted my access to the platform. This is certainly their right, which I don’t contest. And it’s a small thing to someone who has spent as much time in actual jails and prisons as I have. Certainly it is inconvenient, and indeed damages my ability to do the things that a writer and activist does. I cannot effectively promote my non-profit, Pursuance; I cannot share a link to the clip of the speech I gave on Saturday to mark the end of the annual Pirate Party International congress in Munich; I cannot announce that I’ve just been asked to speak at Yale in the near future, or promote the Aaron Swartz Day event at San Francisco’s Internet Archive, where I’ll be joined on stage by Freedom of the Press director Trevor Timm for a freewheeling discussion; I cannot oversee the crowd-sourced research for which Twitter is actually well-equipped; I cannot tell my 16,000 followers what’s going on with my upcoming book; I cannot easily communicate with a large number of my journalist colleagues at once; I cannot remind people, every week or so, that Federalist publisher Ben Domenech lost his WaPo blogging gig when he turned out to be a serial plagiarist and then tried to blame an editor for it and then gave up and declared that at least the liberals were attacking him and not America. This is very difficult for me, but I’ll muddle through.
The problem is not that Twitter suspended me for some length of time; it’s that they did so because I insulted a man for spreading the exact same disinformation that has prompted both of the major terrorist incidents of the last several weeks, despite the clear fact that my conduct did not actually violate any Twitter rules.
It was the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was carried out by a man who appears to have been inspired by plainly erroneous online propaganda about Jewish charities being behind the “immigrant caravan”, and just a few days after Jewish philanthropist Soros received a pipe bomb in the mail for his part in similar imaginary doings. It was in this somber context that I happened to encounter a man on Twitter, posting comments claiming that video existed of Soros paying off American protesters. In tweets that are now deleted but may be seen below, and in others that remain on my account, I challenged him to produce the video, or alternatively to stop spreading these sorts of falsehoods. He refused. And so I wrote a tweet pointing out what the fellow was doing, denounced him as a “slut”, and jovially requested that others join me in characterizing him as such. When he failed to desist, I again declared him a slut, and suggested, for some reason, that he go shave himself:
Now, I should probably explain, lest things remain more confusing than is absolutely necessary, that I had gotten into my girlfriend’s dad’s high-end scotch that evening, and so was unusually drunk, which was why I found it amusing to call this fellow a “slut”, rather than a fascist or a douche or a toy fascist or one of my various other go-to insults. Humor is a sort of black box, mysterious and inexplicable, which is why one of the great narrative tropes of our age involves attempting to explain to some alien or robot why a certain thing is funny. This is true even when a political agitator and professional satirist has had several glasses of scotch and the Muses begin to slur in his ear and he decides it would be hilarious to call some weird fucking propagandist a slut. Frankly I think it was pretty funny, in the same sense that all absurd and inexplicable things are pretty funny. I also have in my possession sworn statements from others who agree that it was pretty funny. I mean I don’t really, but I could probably get them if necessary.
But of course I didn’t get suspended from Twitter for a week for being insufficiently funny (though it wasn’t my best work). I was suspended, according to Twitter, for violating the following rule:
You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.
If you’re curious as to how sarcastically calling a Soros-obsessed disinformation artist a “slut”, or suggesting that he shave himself, or accusing him of putting out too easily, constitutes an attack on a fellow white male’s “race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease,” you may be disappointed to learn that Twitter seems uninterested in answering this question. I’ve now asked twice, via the appeals process, which of the categories listed here I am guilty of having oppressed. On both occasions, I’ve received no answer, other than a message explaining that my account will remain locked, and repeating the rule about not promoting violence or attacking or threatening others because of their race or whatnot.
Confusing the matter further, one of my verboten tweets doesn’t include the word “slut” at all:
Now, if I were being punished for writing “since” instead of “sense,” you can be assured that I would happily accept my sentence and perhaps even demand that it be longer. Perhaps the problem here is that I referred to my adversary as “dumb-looking,” although I can’t imagine what protected category the class of dumb-looking people would fall under, unless it’s now considered a disability — doubtful, given how so many of their number are currently serving in high office or publishing The Federalist. We are no closer to the truth; and Twitter has denied me the guidance I need to learn how to be a Twitter user in good standing - like the guy I insulted for spreading disinformation about a prominent Jew who’s been targeted on the basis of that same disinformation, for instance; indeed, a quick review of his account shows that he’s been contributing to the global conversation with some very insightful insults directed at Caitlin Jenner regarding her “gender identity,” as Twitter puts it in the rules listed above.
Some might wonder if Twitter is taking the opportunity to silence me due to my past role in investigating malfeasance by social networking and tech firms. As someone who’s spent a lot of time being silenced — by everything from court gag orders to prison guards dragging me off the phone during a press interview and throwing me in the hole for lengthy “investigations”— I seriously doubt that this is the case.
The problem here has little to do with me, and much to do with the fact that Twitter knows that actually enforcing any sort of fair, consistent, and meaningful policies across a massive base of users speaking in dozens of different languages is basically impossible — at least without a huge expenditure of resources. Twitter knows that its automated moderation systems are incapable of dealing with the “context” that it insists is so important when women are being threatened, and it knows that the people they hire are not much better. Twitter knows it will always come short in deciding who gets verified and who doesn’t, to the extent that novelty accounts like Thoughts of Dog and various Nazi disinfo artists have the check mark while the increasingly prominent Black Socialists of America does not, despite repeated requests by people like myself and others far more prominent. It knows, in short, that all manner of things will continue to go wrong on its platform, that more will die as a result, that many of those will be already-vulnerable populations of the same sort that are also being denied the same courtesies as the sort of people who oppress them, and that it can continue to gloss over this obvious truth each time it happens. Like Facebook, Google, and the other firms I’ve gone after for almost a decade now over their illicit behavior and subsequent cover-ups, they know that they can get away with most things, including lying to Congress and spying on the public and manipulating the very information that the people need if they are to exist as a citizenry, rather than a subject population in a world powered by Palantir and lied to by Cubic.
The problems here are many, and intertwined. But they ultimately come down to the fact that we are allowing huge amounts of power over information, which is fundamental to everything else, to accumulate in a strange new space in which state and industry overlap in new ways that are still poorly understood simply because every time someone like myself, or Jeremy Hammond, or anyone risks his own well being to expose persona management propaganda bots, or Team Themis, or Romas/COIN, or Intrepid, or ManTech, or any number of other firms and programs that I’ve covered with the help of leakers and hackers over the last decade, our findings never quite make it into the consciousness of the major press outlets, which may mention them in passing but inevitably fail to see why it must remain within our focus as a civilization. Then, when bots start throwing elections, and Palantir and Archimedes Global turn out to have used the same techniques applied in the Themis and Romas/COIN programs to win an election for a kleptocrat, everyone at CNN is shocked. Then all the names and terms I’ve listed above fade away again, which is why you’ve probably never heard most of them before, even after what happened in 2016.
Tomorrow, the United States will have an election. There will be further elections in the future. If the results are to matter, the new information giants must be brought to heel via whatever issues are likely to resonate with the same mediocre editors and producers who failed to see the future coming and were surprised when it arrived. When Twitter screws up, document it. When Facebook fails, document it. When they “let you down”, as the PR folks prefer to put it, and in such a way that clearly endangers the vulnerable in the very same manner that the flacks just finished apologizing for, send it to a tech reporter, or anyone else likely to pay attention. This may seem useless. I can assure you that it’s not. Either things can be changed for the better by making them better understood, or they cannot. If it’s the latter, we might as well not have a press, and we certainly mustn’t have a democracy.