Twitter is a popular medium for online activism, but the social media giant recently found itself in the crosshairs. The backlash began after “Scream” actress Rose McGowan’s account was temporarily locked after she posted several tweets accusing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of rape. McGowan later posted to Instagram to draw attention to the issue and to rally other feminists to her cause. Soon, #WomenBoycottTwitter was — somewhat ironically — trending on Twitter and the company was forced to do damage control.
Twitter released a statement explaining that they suspended McGowan’s account because she included a personal phone number in one of her tweets — a violation of their terms and services policy. In retrospect, Twitter shouldn’t have locked Rose McGowan’s account and it could have avoided unnecessary controversy if it had simply been more transparent. But social media doxxing — publishing private information with malicious intent — is still toxic behavior and Twitter’s better safe than sorry approach to the problem is commendable.
While it might be tempting to publicly shame or identify dubious individuals, the problem is that in the past online mobs haven’t been very good at this. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing, amateur sleuths on Reddit mistakenly identified Sunil Tripathi as one of the terrorists. This led to the victim’s family receiving unwanted attention and death threats from angry strangers. As it turned out, Tripathi wasn’t in hiding — he’d actually committed suicide.
More recently, many Twitter users attempted to dox white nationalists attending the now infamous Charlottesville rallies. Many of the individuals identified were reprehensible nazi-sympathizers who don’t deserve our sympathy. However, users also identified University of Arkansas’ associate engineering professor Kyle Quinn as one of the attendees. In reality, Quinn and his wife were viewing an art gallery and dining out that Friday night. But because a man who resembled Quinn wore an Arkansas t-shirt to a white supremacist rally, both he and his wife were subjected to a deluge of online vitriol. Complete strangers accused the associate professor of racism, called for his job and even sent death threats.
While I can understand why this might seem far removed from daily life on campus, consider UT’s annual torchlit parade. Although Texas Exs recently decided to end the tradition, imagine if this year’s parade had the bad luck to actually coincide with the Charlottesville rallies. Imagine attending the parade and waking up the next day to countless death threats — all because you attended UT’s torchlit parade and bore an unfortunate resemblance to a random neo-nazi.
Given the nature and sheer number of accusations against Weinstein, we should obviously support and believe victims like Rose McGowan. But the problems associated with viral outrage and online doxxing necessitate that platforms like Twitter take them seriously. Twitter’s response in this case was less than ideal, but temporarily locking a benign account is always better than accidentally ruining an innocent person’s life forever.
Michael Jensen is a neuroscience senior from The Woodlands. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @michaeltangible.