Why you should care about Twitter banning Russian accounts

If Twitter is not a platform in which criticism and diversity of thought are permitted, then it cannot be a place for meaningful dialogue.

Ever since widespread allegations against Russia of election interference in 2016, relations between Russia and the US, being theatrically amplified on western social media, have plummeted. The list of the West’s grievances with Russia has grown far beyond justifications for sanctions surrounding the Crimean annexation, and now includes a nearly indefinable but inescapable dichotomy of moral rectitude. While the narrative polarity of the Cold War era could be considered functional, contributing to the security of deterrence policy and encouraging the development of political, economic, military, and technological prowess within the two respective poles, this neo-polarity seems to be achieving little besides the policing and censorship of political discussion online.

In a recently published study, Ru-PAC investigated the systematic anti-Russian bias within Western media coverage on Crimea. Among their findings, Russia’s involvement in the Crimean referendum was negatively framed in more than 97% of articles published by CNN and the New York Times - but that’s just official media. Social media's bias against Russia is taking a slightly different shape and Twitter seems to be leading the way.

According to a summer 2018 survey, 71% of Twitter users in the US rely on the site for news. The company's corporate about page states that “Twitter is an open service that’s home to a world of diverse people, perspectives, ideas, and information.” Unfortunately, they left out the fact that pro-Russian ideas and policy influencers who criticize western institutions aren’t necessarily included in their world of diverse people and perspectives. Recently, a massive wave of permanent bans swept over 373 Twitter accounts, more than 100 of which supposedly had a connection to Russia.

Among the de-platformed is the esteemed think tank Valdai Discussion Club, which has hosted and facilitated policy discussions with leaders from around the world. According to Reuters, these accounts were banned for “amplifying narratives that undermined faith in NATO and targeted the United States and European Union.” While words such as “amplifying” and “targeted” are incredibly ambiguous, this motion and its justification are quite unambiguously anti-free-speech. If Russian academics, researchers, and influencers aren’t allowed to express their Russian perspective in criticism of certain western institutions and policies, it’s logical to assume that westerners who express a similar criticism of their own institutions will be met with the same response.

RT recently touched on the account suspensions of Valdai Club and others, saying that this is a “Dangerous Precedent…. Could mean that millions of users are subject to bans.” Accessibility to the most used platforms should be open to all. The power to regulate, suppress, and censor the voices of a minority group should not be entrusted to any private entity. Moreover, when did it become a core function of the social media companies of silicon valley to carry out the mission and ideology of a state-sponsored entity like NATO? The origins of which were to combat against the former Soviet Union, a state that has been dissolved since 1991. Who is NATO’s current adversary? These are nothing more than rhetorical questions but have become seemingly more important and more impossible to ask.

Censorship on social media is not isolated to recent bans targeting Russian, Armenian, and Iranian entities. This same tactic has been seen domestically in the United States -numerous conservative-leaning political commentators have been banned recently as well. Regardless of political affiliation, society should strive to make positive and challenging discourse once again acceptable and encouraged. The novel "cancel culture" has inherently no tangible boundaries when considering who might be the next likely target. Twitter is the platform for all those who have influence. It is where audiences of any magnitude and from all over the world are reached. However, if it is not a platform in which criticism and diversity of thought are permitted, it cannot be a place for meaningful discussion or reliable share of information.

Michael Anderson is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).