Snapshot: Why Twitter Should Not Automatically Ban Racist Words

Emma Baum / Wikimedia Commons
Emma Baum / Wikimedia Commons

Labour MP Luciana Berger has today called on Twitter to “automatically ban” certain racist words, after she received more than 2,500 anti-Semitic hate tweets from neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Berger argues:

“At the height of the abuse, the police said I was the subject of 2,500 hate messages in the space of three days using the hashtag ‘filthyjewbitch’. Online hate needs to be taken as seriously as offline hate – but it isn’t. Twitter’s response isn’t good enough. It has a responsibility to do more to protect its users. The site is letting me and many others down who have been the subject of lots of hate. It could start by automatically banning racist words which aren’t allowed to be printed in newspapers or broadcast on TV that could never be used in a positive way – such as kike.”

Is this the right response? It is not difficult to understand why Berger feels an outright, pre-emptive ban is necessary. She has clearly received appalling racist abuse on a mass scale over a sustained period. But forcing Twitter to implement some form of automatic algorithm banning certain words is the wrong way to go about combating online racism. On a practical level, it is an ill-thought out idea. As Berger herself says, most of the abuse she received came in the form of the ‘filthyjewbitch’ hashtag. Under her proposal, none of these words would be banned, so she would still have received those tweets.

What’s more, those reporting on or exposing racism would see their attempts to do so made more difficult. How could journalists reporting on hate crimes do their jobs if they weren’t allowed to tweet words that may be essential to, say, criminal trials?

Secondly, there is a more fundamental issue of freedom of speech at stake. No one would defend racist abuse, and most would agree subjecting someone to a sustained campaign of anti-Semitism should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator. But preemptively banning certain words would take us down a dangerous slippery slope towards censorship. If racist words are banned, you can bet it won’t be long before other more contested words are too.