Did Twitter cave to pressure from Putin?

Twitter is under increasing international pressure to monitor content, which may challenge its place as a forum of free expression.

Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Russian monastery St. Panteleimon at Karyes, on Mount Athos, Greece, May 28, 2016. Twitter suspended, and then quickly reinstated, several accounts parodying Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin.

Tech giant Twitter made a quick reversal this week, first suspending and then swiftly reinstating accounts parodying President Vladimir Putin and several other Russian officials.

An outpouring of dissent followed the removal on Tuesday of @DarthPutinKGB, a handle that pokes fun at Mr. Putin by tweeting from the perspective of the Russian leader. The English-language account had nearly 60,000 followers at the time it was suspended. Supporters tweeted their dismay at the account's suspension with the hashtag #NoGulagForDarthPutinKGB, alluding to Soviet-era labor camps.

In a Moscow Times interview, someone claiming to be the unidentified satirist behind the account said that he suspected Kremlin pressure lay behind the suspension of @DarthPutinKGB. While Twitter does not comment on individual accounts, the company directed journalists to their policy on parody, commentary, and fan accounts, which states that parody accounts cannot have the exact name of the parodied subject and that the bio must explicitly state that it is a parody account. The Putin account initially did violate the first of those rules, while the bio said, "I serve tea to those that call this parody."

In an interview on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the purported account holder said in an online chat: "No sensible person could read my bio and think it is really the president of Russia."

However, Twitter reinstated @DarthPutinKGB after the account name was changed from Vladimir Putin to Darth Putin. The account's new bio accuses the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of having a hand in the suspension, "146% of Russians didn't elect me. @mfa_russia had me suspended as they sound more like a parody than I do."

While there is no evidence to support speculation that Twitter was pressured by the Russian government to curb the accounts, the incident highlights to a fundamental dichotomy unfolding for the Twitter medium.

The social media app has been known as a powerful tool for the organization and dissemination of political dissent, in the Arab Spring and Hong Kong's "umbrella movement," as well as in opposition protests within Russia.

At the same time, Twitter faces increasing pressure to control content as its international reach comes up against a spectrum of national stances on freedom of expression.

Russia, which ranks 148th out of the 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders' Global Press Freedom Index, has flirted with banning Twitter and several other social media sites in the past, specifically because these American-based companies would not release data on account holders' identities to the government.

At the same time that controversy over these parody accounts began trending, Twitter and other tech giants Facebook, Youtube, and Microsoft were signing a code of conduct agreement with the European Commission to closely monitor and remove illegal hate speech. While the agreement was made as part of "promoting and facilitating expression throughout the online world," it was met with skepticism from rights groups who feel it could infringe on freedom of speech and are concerned that civil society organizations were not included in the conversation.

Such agreements are complicated by differing national values, writes Emily Bell, a leading scholar on social media, in a recent Guardian column. She argues that these anti-hate-speech agreements will chip away at Twitter as a forum for dissent or parody.

"One person's hate speech is another person's winning campaign," she writes, speaking plainly about contrasts between the United States and other countries. "And herein lies a problem with the suddenly much greater flows of information and idea exchange."

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