Tech

The Latest Front In Twitter’s War On Harassment: Weird Twitter

Twitter begins to whitewash its free-speech-uber-alles past.

Justin Tallis / AFP / Getty Images

The threats from Mike Fossey’s Twitter account were becoming more and more violent. He promised grievous bodily harm: “I’m gonna beat you up if you don’t shut up,” he tweeted. “I’m going to punch you in the head until you throw up.”

Twitter has rules about posting threats and harassment, and it’s increasingly enforcing them. So perhaps it should not be surprising that shortly thereafter Fossey was suspended from the platform. He only got his account, along with his 36,000 followers, back when he deleted the menacing tweets, per Twitter’s recommendation. But, like many Twitter criminals, Fossey was a recidivist. Not long after being reinstated, he mocked another poster for his “shitty jeans” and “disgusting guitar music.”

And then, he crossed the rubicon, after another user, @shrkelicollect, tweeted an image of his bare arms:

@shkrelicoIlect @rigamarock @spacej_me nice fuckin noodles bitch i didnt know spaghetti was for dinner. im going to murder you dude

— Mike F (@mikefossey)

And with that, Fossey found himself banned from Twitter. (He would be reinstated two weeks later, after two appeals.)

A bully gets reported for harassment, and is subsequently booted. That’s the way it’s supposed to go, right? Except the actual tweets in question are the kind of absurdist juvenile taunting and stagey threats that could come straight out of Wrestlemania – they are clearly a performance.

See, for example, some of Fossey’s other material:

my friends... it is with a heavy shirt that i must announce i have been swimming in my t shirt once again

— Mike F (@mikefossey)


Meanwhile, @shkrelicollect is a gimmick account that has since been banned. Any reasonable person, but especially one with a basic familiarity with Twitter, should be able to tell that the spirit of Fossey’s account was comic, even if it was in poor taste. “I just log on and make jokes,” Fossey told BuzzFeed News.

And yet, logging on and making jokes — totally deadpan, totally strange, sometimes extremely mean jokes; the basic premise of the loose constellation of Twitter accounts collectively called Weird Twitter — has in recent months become a serious matter, as a handful of popular Weird Twitter accounts have been suspended or banned altogether.

Over the past year and a half, in response to bad press brought about by torrents of abuse often associated with Gamergate and the alt-right counterculture, Twitter has stepped up its effort to fight harassment by strengthening its rules and backing away from its once proud free-speech-uber-alles credo. And though Twitter has long banned threats, it appeared to take a more aggressive position on enforcement last year when it banned conservative journalist Charles Johnson for a tweet many interpreted as a threat towards Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson.

The Weird Twitter bans are the latest indication that this reckoning has turned the company into an uncomfortable arbitrator, rather than a proud facilitator, of speech. And it may well be proof that along with actual online bad guys, Twitter is sweeping away people whose worst offense is outrageousness and terminal irony.

The bans have alarmed swaths of Weird Twitter. “Mike F getting banned was a bad sign,” the owner of a popular Weird Twitter account (who asked that neither his name nor the name of his account be used) wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Since he’s really not involved in that stupid drama stuff. I think it’s generally bad, and highlights just how poorly Twitter as a company is handling the harassment issue.”

According to @swarthyvillain, another banned Weird Twitterer, Fossey is “the poster boy for an unfair suspension.” @Swarthyvillain, who asked that his real name not be used in the story, said he doesn’t know the exact reason for his own banning, beyond being informed by Twitter that he sent threatening Tweets, an assertion he denies: “I said a few things that were probably in poor taste, but I’ve never threatened anybody.” Unlike with suspensions, Twitter does not tell banned users which individual tweets got them banned.

Indeed, a commonly held belief among Weird Twitterers is that Twitter has adopted a new banning regime that allows prominent users to game the system by encouraging their followers to mass report accounts. Mike Fossey believes he was banned because a group of Weird Twitter-adjacent accounts coordinated harassment reports against him, possibly as a troll.

One person @swarthyvillain antagonized — and someone who has encouraged his followers to report accounts — is the writer and former Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu. Chu says that he had nothing to do with @swarthyvillain’s ban (“I don’t think I’ve ever even reported him, only blocked him”). He added that irony and trolling are poor excuses for online harassment.

“Trying to annoy, piss off or generally screw with someone who doesn’t want to be contacted by you is malicious by definition regardless of whether your intentions are “ironic,” whatever the hell that means,” Chu wrote in an email.

It’s a strong point: Assessing seriousness is a difficult enough task for individual users, let alone a company that has increasingly found itself in the business of policing millions of messages. Twitter needs consistent standards, and yet what set of standards could possibly stop harassment but also allow Mike Fossey to channel Macho Man Randy Savage as internet performance art?

It was partially with challenges like these in mind that Twitter formed its new, unfortunately Orwellian-sounding Trust and Safety Council. But the group’s opaque nature strikes some as a pretext for Twitter to continue to suspend and ban users with little explanation, and for third party groups to enjoy undue influence over who gets banned.

“It’s a black box where no one knows what goes on,” @swarthyvillain said.

Twitter did not respond to calls and emails for comment.

For the most part, the affected Weird Twitterers have taken their suspensions and bans with characteristic ironic detachment — “I’m ashamed to say I’m mad about Twitter,” Fossey said. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been hurt. Fossey used his huge following to build a successful online woodworking business, one that he said is imperiled by the ban. With that in mind, Fossey registered another handle. “If I don’t sign up, I don’t sell anything,” he said.

However, on Monday, after creating the new account, Fossey received word from Twitter that it had reconsidered the ban and decided he had not violated the company’s rules after all. It did not say how they arrived at the decision. He was reinstated.

But his ban highlighted the tension at the heart of Twitter’s new speech regime. Prominent Weird Twitterers, unlike almost every other kind of prominent Twitter account, only have one outlet: Twitter. Jay-Z, Marc Andreessen, and LeBron James would all still enjoy massive reach without the platform; people like @swarthyvillain and Fossey are known purely in the context of the platform.

And that’s what makes these bans such a fascinating bellwether: The users now at odds with Twitter are an inherent part of Twitter’s free-wheeling, speech-playground past. Indeed, they may be its most unique legacy: A kind of outrageous internet graffiti that is both vandalism and, at times, art. With these bans, Twitter has started to bleach its walls.












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Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at joe.bernstein@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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