Twitter is Sending Legal Warnings About Islam Tweets

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Running a globally successful social network such as Twitter can be tricky business. On the one hand, you want people to think you are the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party’, yet on the other hand there are some complicated international laws to navigate.

In case you are one of those tedious types who thinks it’s even remotely interesting to remind people that “Twitter is a private company and they can do what they want”, save your breath. I know.

Now that’s out of the way, perhaps we can talk about the implications of Twitter’s approach to free expression. Private business or otherwise, we should not underestimate the influence Twitter has on politics, news and society. In fact, what is said on Twitter often IS the news. And as a result, we should be able to discuss whether a leading facilitator of global communication supports free expression or does not.

Author and friend of the Godless Spellchecker Podcast, Michael Sherlock may be firmly on the side of ‘not’ at this moment in time. As posted via his Twitter account on the 10th of October, Michael received a rather concerning email from Twitter about one of his tweets:

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The potentially ‘illegal’ tweet in question is the below link to a provocative Sherlock piece on Islam’s Prophet Muhammad:

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As Michael Sherlock told Conatus News:

The piece in question explores the possibility that the Prophet Muhammad may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Whilst I concede the title of the piece, ‘Walk Like an Epileptic Wife-Beating Paedophile Prophet’, is provocative, the piece itself is merely a research article. It even begins with a caveat to ensure Muslims are not unfairly treated for simply being Muslim, a caveat I frequently make. I believe that no person should be discriminated against for their religion, or lack thereof. However, I also believe that beliefs should not be shielded from scrutiny, criticism, and even mockery

Michael Sherlock has since indicated he will be launching legal action against Twitter in response, and has started a GoFundMe page for support.

Broadcaster Kenan Malik also appeared to have received similar emails from Twitter HQ, as he revealed in a number of tweets:

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The offending tweet on this occasion appears to be a link to a cartoon from the long-running satirical ‘Jesus and Mo’ (@JandMo) series:

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I reached out to the creator behind the excellent ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon strips who told me they themselves have been the recipient of email warnings about ‘illegal’ tweets. They told me: “At first I thought it was just funny. Too absurd to be disturbing. I’ve been writing J&M for 13 years, and suddenly it’s illegal? But the closer I look at it, the more sinister it appears”. The creator of J&M believes that the suggestions to ‘voluntarily remove the content’ and to consider seeking ‘legal council’ is an attempt to “intimidate”.

It seems likely that Twitter is just responding to reports of illegal activity with automated emails. It’s unlikely that any of this may result in actual legal action, however the cost is a chilling effect on free speech.

Islam is an especially tricky topic with which to produce art, satire or criticism. Emails of this kind containing such alarming language may convince people it’s probably safer to bite their tongue on this subject altogether. Especially at a time when the UK is making a record number of arrests for online speech.

I will be keeping an eye out for any further developments and reporting on them here.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.

5 comments

  • Yes, Twitter is a private business, but it’s also a near-monopoly in its niche, and it is generally accepted that it is appropriate to regulate private companies when they are monopolies or dominant in a market. (For example, forbidding Microsoft from bundling “Explorer” with “Windows”, etc.)

    I think that near-monopoly speech-platform companies such as Twitter should be legally required to adopt first-amendment-style free-speech principles.

    • robin gangopadhya

      Y’all, there are million other ways of raising issues–with an objective of addressing/redressing socio-political issues than digging up historical or ahistorical characters or otherwise supreme form of beings. I write critically on current realities, on how people following old methods seem to want to corece us all in impressing good old days, without referring to such beings. Doing otherwise is misuse of my time and loss of an opportunity to bring home appropriate analysis. We have come to live in civil societies formed out of challenges to old books and where all people have agency with an upward slope in all matters of life liberty and pursuit of happiness. Where a wide horizon is made available for each to thrive without threat or cruelty of the saws and a bunch of unpleasant bearded men telling us how to live in this civil society, forever in making- with our own intellect. Not from the past. This message does not have to get loathsome by referring to the past.

  • It’s becoming frightening.
    I don’t think it will be long before you receive some kind of knock on the door from the authorities.
    May I ask how you would respond to being told you were breaking the law by criticising Islam?
    I think (hope) this will become the subject that unites people from all political spheres.

  • @Coel, I thought Trump was trying to introduce similar legislation to prevent tech giants censoring/intimidating conservative voices.

  • Twitter is covering itself just in case the tweets are in breach of some law. The worry is not just how Twitter is behaving but how easy it is for vexatious claims to throw a proverbial spanner in the way we assess what is fair and just. We should have the courage of our convictions and not privilege those with an over inflated sense of the importance of their beliefs.

What do you think? Leave some comments!