Over the past week on Twitter, Wael Abbas, an independent, award-winning Egyptian journalist, and Amina Ismail, a journalist for Reuters based in Cairo, had their Twitter accounts suspended without explanation. Ismail’s access to her account was reinstated on Friday, December 15, and suspended again on Monday, December 18. So far, Wael Abbas has been continuously suspended from Twitter for about a week.
According to Ismail, Twitter claimed she had violated its impersonation policy; the company supposedly received reports the Reuters reporter was pretending to be someone else on the platform. As of this writing, there is no explanation as to why Ismail’s account was reinstated and suspended again, or why Abbas continues to be suspended from the platform. While he was trying to find out the reason for his suspension, Abbas attempted to make a temporary Twitter account, but even this was taken down by the company.
In recent months, Twitter has come under increasing scrutiny for its inconsistent policy in allowing certain types of inflammatory, hateful tweets to stay up, while inexplicably banning journalists from the platform.
The suspension of Ismail and Abbas came just two weeks after Donald Trump retweeted three very Islamophobic videos from the Twitter feed of “Britain First,” a xenophobic, far-right group in the United Kingdom. The videos were inaccurately described and tweeted without context, with titles like “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” Many analysts argued that the tweets incited violence against Muslims, and should be taken down.
In response to the controversy, Twitter took a puzzling position that suggested arbitrariness in the enforcement of its user policies. As the company told Sam Biddle of The Intercept, while Trump’s retweets constituted “hateful conduct,” which would qualify them for removal under Twitter’s policy, “we believe there is a legitimate public interest in its availability.” Twitter retracted its position a day later, and said the tweets would remain, in accordance with its “media policy.” As Biddle pointed out, however, this policy does not address why those tweets are acceptable and do not otherwise violate Twitter’s terms of service.
In general, Twitter has taken a lax and, at the very least, inconsistent approach to regulating fake accounts, trolls, and bots. Indeed, if the company was more engaged with these issues, it would have been unlikely to suspend Ismail’s account. The “tipsters,” who reported her for alleged impersonation, were likely trolls upset by Ismail’s reporting on plainclothes Egyptian police officers who prevented her and other journalists from interviewing a potential presidential candidate in Egypt’s 2018 election.
The suspension of Ismail and Abbas may also point to an even more troubling trend – namely that Twitter is working hand-in-hand with the interests of various governments. Abbas is well known for his reporting on brutality and human rights abuses by Egyptian security forces, while, as noted above, Ismail also exposes Egyptian state abuses. The decision not to delete Donald Trumps retweets, and, indeed, to allow him to continue using the platform to spread propaganda, also suggests Twitter is unwilling to enforce its policies against government actors.
Currently, there is no evidence suggesting that Twitter is, in fact, cooperating with any government. At the very least, however, the company is allowing its platform to be used to spew hate, while impeding the work of journalists who are risking their lives to tell the truth.