Sunday, May 24, 2015

Twitter will capitulate again and reinstate Chuck Johnson's account

I don’t expect Twitter to permanently ban Chuck Johnson – the dangerous sociopath best known for routinely intimidating and doxxing other people through Twitter.

That’s why it’s worth clarifying the stakes and the decision facing Twitter at the moment: when the worst inevitably happens, the company needs to be held responsible.

This is Johnson’s fourth Twitter ban. He has proven three times now that he has no intention of following Twitter’s rules, and is happy to risk the occasional suspension with the repeatedly justified expectation that it will only be temporary. Twitter knows this. It has records of his agreeing to the site’s Terms of Service, and records of him breaking that agreement over and over. It will be easy enough to establish this without even going through the legal discovery process; most of it’s a matter of public record.

Johnson will of course not be able or even attempt to defend his actions, but will instead simply threaten the company with a public relations hit. He’ll characterize the ban as censorship, even though Twitter is just neutrally enforcing clear rules pertaining to public safety and its own liability, and even though Twitter has no obligation to provide him a platform. He’ll also try to politicize the issue, even though Johnson has become a pariah even among those he would call allies precisely due to his dangerous behavior.

If Twitter reinstates Johnson, it will be a decision to risk user safety rather than take even the slightest risk of a PR dustup or legal skirmish. He will continue to use Twitter to publicize personal information about other users – like their home addresses – and to disseminate calls to violence veiled in plausible denial (that the courts, by the way, would not actually find plausible). He will will continue to openly negotiate prices for these (actionable) activities on Twitter, as he did today, creating a massive public record that gave Twitter every opportunity to intervene.

Twitter could, of course, actually intervene. It could permanently ban Johnson’s account and any new account he creates, just as it has with other users, and easily defend the ban as the basic enforcement action it would be.

But that’s extremely unlikely – which means that Twitter users need to start defending themselves. Document Johnson’s tweets. Put the company on record about its stance towards online harassment and intimidation in general, and Johnson’s actions in particular. And when the worst happens, show Twitter what real PR problems and real legal problems look like.