Over the weekend, Twitter reinstated the account of white supremacist Richard Spencer. Spencer is a prominent figurehead in the alt-right — the subsection of white supremacy that generally congregates online to harass people and send them frog memes — and director of the National Policy Institute, which is benignly named and very racist.
Spencer’s resurrection is curious given that Twitter has spent the weeks following the election purging their platform of hundreds of alt-right accounts. According to the platform, as reported by Vox, Spencer was not suspended for his horrific views; he was suspended for having multiple redundant accounts, a violation of Twitter’s rules. He was told to pick only one which could be reinstated.
He was also re-verified, though Twitter confirms that he had the blue check mark before his suspension. Any user can apply for verified status now if they believe their account to be of “public interest,” so it’s doubtful that Twitter went out of its way to grant the designation.
The decision to revive Spencer’s account is odd, but looking at why Twitter temporarily banned him in the first place reveals how Twitter is addressing their widespread harassment issues. By preventing Spencer from having multiple accounts, they have outlawed one of the alt-right’s most powerful tactics: Astroturfing and sock-puppeting, the use of multiple accounts to make a community seem larger than it is.
Cutting down on alternate accounts subsequently cuts down on the sort of large-scale brigading that the alt-right uses to harass people into silence. Popular user Milo Yiannopoulos was banned earlier this year not because of his troglodytic views, but, according to Twitter, because he coordinated and invited harassment of another user, actress Leslie Jones. By cutting off the routes of attack that alt-righters (and gamergaters before them) lean on, Twitter is effectively getting rid of trolls without explicitly banning them for their detestable stances.
Social-media users without the ability to brute-force overwhelm ideological opponents with harassment, threats, slurs, and shock images are robbed of much of their power. Unfortunately, the perpetual online culture war we are now engaged in is a seesaw, and internet asshats will likely find a way to soon tip the balance in their favor. Reinstating Spencer’s account is one step in that direction.