Twitter accounts that use the Star of David in profile pictures were locked by the platform this week, with a message saying the symbol violates rules against “posting hateful imagery,” but the lockout might have been tied to a broader effort to combat hate speech and conspiracy theories.
Twitter “chooses to target the benign symbol of a victimised minority instead of the countless racists who use its platform with impunity,” said Stephen Silverman, of the British group Campaign Against Antisemitism, which discussed Twitter’s action against a Jewish symbol in a press release.
It is not clear whether the accounts were blocked by an algorithm or by a human moderator, why there was action against the accounts this week and how many were blocked — Twitter representatives declined to answer these questions.
But Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a nonprofit that monitors misinformation, said Twitter likely established a new enforcement action that automatically locked the users’ accounts and flagged them for review by moderators — a combination of artificial intelligence and human effort.
“It’s sort of a byproduct of when companies start to do the right thing and do it really abruptly,” he said. “It’s a good illustration of what you’re going to see happen more often.”
Carusone said Twitter might have taken this step to try to fight conspiracy theories — many of them anti-Semitic — tied to the far-right QAnon movement, whose visibility has spiked in the last month. The platform took down more than 7,000 QAnon accounts that violated its policies banning targeted harassment over the last few weeks.
The fact many QAnon theories are based in anti-Semitic tropes might explain why Twitter decided to crack down on the Star of David motif this week, said Carusone.
He said the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein’s fixer, Ghislaine Maxwell, may have contributed to the “explosive growth of these pedophile, global elite sex trafficking conspiracies,” to which anti-Semitism is “central.”
Campaign Against Anti-Semitism said that Twitter users have contacted them reporting that their profiles featured a blue Star of David, white Stars of David in a graffiti style and a portfolio of yellow Stars of David, and their accounts were suddenly locked.
Twitter has addressed the controversy, saying the locking of those accounts was a mistake and the accounts have been reinstated.
We want to clarify some questions about hateful imagery on Twitter. We categorically do not consider the Star of David as a hateful symbol or hateful image. We have for some time seen the ‘yellow star’ or ‘yellow badge’ symbol being used by those seeking to target Jewish people.— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) July 22, 2020
Twitter does ban “images altered to include hateful symbols or references to a mass murder that targeted a protected category, e.g., manipulating images of individuals to include yellow Star of David badges, in reference to the Holocaust.”
Just changed my background to that of @Racharley77’s icon photo. She was blocked by Twitter for ‘hateful imagery’ - a cute cartoon character and a #starofdavid. I also updated my profile - added a special hashtag to define the outrage. #AmYisraelChai - #TwitterSucks!! pic.twitter.com/hbVvnDnQSe— Jay Engelmayer (@jengelmayer) July 21, 2020
The Anti-Defamation League found that roughly 4.2 million English anti-Semitic tweets were published in a year period.
While we can’t expect social media platforms to be perfect, we can expect them to correct problems when they learn of them. Kudos to Twitter for doing this here and elsewhere recently. #StopHateForProfit.— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) July 22, 2020
Between January and June 2019, Twitter’s most recent reporting period, the platform said it “actioned against 584,429 unique accounts for hateful conduct violations,” the umbrella designation that includes hateful imagery violations.
Do you have a Star of David in your profile picture? Have you been locked out of your account by Twitter? Some users are saying they’ve had their accounts locked due to “hateful imagery.”— Johnny Kunza (@johnkunza) July 21, 2020
This is not the first time Twitter has received criticism for erroneously locking users’ accounts in an effort to combat hateful content. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s Twitter account was locked last year after he re-posted video of protesters threatening his life.
Moderators for other social media platforms report bad working conditions and little support for trauma generated by actual hate speech and hateful imagery generated by users.
Correction, July 22 11:54 a.m.: A previous version of this story stated that Twitter had not responded to the controversy. In fact, an official account had tweeted regarding the locked accounts.