Update: This article has been updated to include a comment from Twitter.
On Monday morning, one of the country’s most prominent white supremacists was kicked off Twitter. David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan head and outspoken admirer of President Trump, was stripped off his account, separated from his tens of thousands of followers.
His critics celebrated. His fans rallied around him.
A few hours later, his Twitter account mysteriously reappeared.
A relieved sounding Duke wrote: “I’m back. Though I have no idea why I was suspended. Thank you to all of the wonderful people who offered support. #FreeDavidDuke.”
It looks like the Twitter suspension was a simple accident. An agent mistakenly marked the account for suspension during a routine review, according to Buzzfeed News.
“We regularly review accounts and take action if they are found to have violated Twitter’s rules. If an account is found to have been suspended in error, we immediately restore it and notify the owner of our mistake,” a Twitter spokesperson said. Twitter said that Duke had not violated any of the company’s rules.
Regardless, the episode highlights the sometimes unclear rules guiding Twitter’s policy towards hateful speech — and also how much Duke needs Twitter.
Twitter has struggled for months to set firm boundaries for acceptable online conduct in an increasingly volatile and polarized political climate.
“The challenge is: where do you set the line?” said James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School who studies online communities.
There is a corporate imperative to have clear rules when it comes to acceptable speech, Grimmelmann said, because if users begin associating a platform with hate speech this might have a negative effect on business. If users associate a platform as being draconian with its rules, this could also effect business.
“Twitter suspensions are more typically a sign that the account in question either did something differently than past behavior or got people’s attention in a way that was more striking,” Grimmelmann said.
Accounts with more followers — Duke boasts more than 33,000 followers — are also more likely to come to the attention of Twitter authorities.
Twitter has typically relied on users to report abusive Twitter accounts. But last week, the company announced that they would be introducing new algorithms to identify accounts as potentially engaging in abusive behavior.
It’s unclear how this will effect the company’s ongoing back-and-forth with white nationalist accounts.
Other prominent white nationalists or “alt-right” members have also been kicked off Twitter in recent months. Former Brietbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently removed from the platform amidst a crackdown on a wave of racist abuse targeting the “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones.
Other figures have experienced temporary bans. In November, “alt-right” figurehead Richard Spencer was kicked off Twitter for a few weeks. Spencer was only barred for a few weeks — and not for hate speech but for keeping multiple Twitter accounts with similar uses. Still, Spencer cast the ousting as a kind of anti-white witch hunt, calling it “corporate Stalinism.”
Grimmelmann said that while Yiannopoulos was likely removed for specifically targeting an individual, the rhetoric of people like Duke is harder to police. While Duke’s speech might be openly anti-Semitic, ant-black or anti-immigrant, if he is not targeting specific individuals or Twitter users, it seems less likely he will be removed Twitter.
Duke imagined his brief suspension from Twitter as having something to do with — what else? — a Jewish plot against whites. In speculating as to why he was kicked off, Duke said on his radio show: “I expose the fact that Israel is an ethno-state.”
Duke has a lot at stake in loosing his high profile Twitter account.
For Duke, Twitter has been the perfect platform to repackage decades-old forms of white nationalism and anti-Semitism for a fresh audience. Here, he is seen as a sort of elder statesman of the white supremacists. Younger figures like Spencer look to him with admiration.
For Duke — whose career in white supremacist circles goes back more than 50 years — Twitter has been a rebirth.
Dovetailing with the rise of President Trump, Duke has ramped up his online presence, capitalizing on an increased media focus on online extremism.
Duke does not run any formal organization. And hasn’t for years. But with Trump’s rise, he saw an opportunity to rocket back into relevance.
“He has experience a renewed interest which he was able to sustain in large part because of the Trump campaign and the presidency,” said Mark Pitcavage, research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Duke has also sought to piggyback on the success of the “alt-right.”
“To the extent that the ‘alt-right’ is getting attention he wants to be a part of that, to the extent that President Trump is having attention he wants to align with him,” said Pitcavage.
Ultimately, though, Duke has two goals, Pitcavage said: “to promote himself and to promote white supremacy.”
And for now, Twitter is where he can continue to do that, to tens of thousands of followers.