Twitter is simultaneously many things: a means of elevating otherwise ignored voices, a platform for facilitating debate, a portal to access a bewildering array of information – and a cesspit of hatred.
This weekend, the grime artist Wiley – with his half a million followers – unleashed a tirade of undiluted antisemitism on to the site over the course of two days, leading some to observe a 48-hour boycott of the social media platform to protest Twitter’s slowness to act. But it has not proved uncontroversial; some users have noted that the website has long hosted unapologetic neo-Nazis such as US white supremacist Richard Spencer, so why wait for a black celebrity to make antisemitic comments to take such action? It took Twitter years to remove inflammatory far-right personalities, such as Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins. With a range of Jewish organisations urging a boycott and antisemitic hate crimes at a record high, I’m among those who heeded the call, while respecting the views of others who believe this is not an effective means to challenge racism.
That Twitter needs to take further action is beyond doubt. On a daily basis, the site pulses with Islamophobia, anti-blackness, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and every other form of bigotry, often directly targeted at individuals. As Alex Hern, the Guardian’s technology editor notes, Twitter’s policy in this area has gradually evolved from a commitment to free speech fundamentalism, which regarded racism as a bad opinion to be challenged, to a commitment to upholding minority rights in the face of illegitimate hate speech.
But it is a tech company that is “fundamentally underfunded in Silicon Valley terms”, says Hern, and is slow to develop new ideas, let alone clamp down on hate speech. This doesn’t mean Twitter should not invest in more moderators and take swifter action, particularly in a case like this one, which was so egregious because of the size of Wiley’s platform combined with the intensity and duration of his racist tirade.