Attack of the Flag Spammers
Shortly after their video “If I Wanted America to Fail” went viral, Free Market America found themselves kicked off Twitter, a popular social media resource that allows users to post very short messages. After a few hours of confusion, their account was reinstated.
This past Sunday, the Twitter account of Chris Loesch, husband of conservative pundit Dana Loesch, was abruptly shut down. After a massive outcry, and the creation of a Twitter topic called “#FreeChrisLoesch” that swiftly became one of the hottest “hash tags” on the network, Chris’ account was reactivated… for a couple of hours. By Monday morning, he was gone again, after his account was restored and removed several more times.
What did Free Market America and Chris Loesch do to warrant suspension? After all, people like Spike Lee and Roseanne Barr flagrantly, openly, defiantly violated Twitter’s terms of service, and put human lives in jeopardy, by distributing personal information about George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case. Their accounts have not been suspended. What violation of Loesch’s compares to using Twitter to target someone for assault by an angry mob – and, for that matter, sending the mob to the wrong address?
These suspensions were apparently the work of “flag spammers,” digital brown shirt gangs that make coordinated attacks to silence conservative voices by abusing Twitter’s spam flagging feature. Al Gore coined the term “digital brown shirts” to describe the online squadrons supposedly unleashed to “harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the President.” Of course, he was talking about President Bush, and there weren’t any actual “digital brown shirts” at the time, but this is precisely the sort of behavior he was describing.
Twitter does have more than its share of spammers, who pump out unsolicited advertising riddled with occasionally hazardous links – the postcard version of spam email. In order to combat this abuse, users can flag messages from a suspected spam account. When the Twitter system accumulates a certain number of spam reports, the account is shut down.
All the flag spammers need to do is kick off their jackboots, lean back in their easy chairs, click the spam flag button on a critical mass of Tweets from a targeted conservative, and… voila! Off the Twitter Gulag with you, dissident!
Such attacks are much more difficult to perpetrate against superstar Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers, because the spam flag software takes the size of a user’s following into consideration. “Following” is a deliberate act a user performs, in order to see all future updates from a favored author. Few people would voluntarily “follow” a true spam account. That’s why Chris Loesch was targeted, while his wife’s considerably larger following protects her from spam flag attacks.
As chronicled by the Twitter news site Twitchy.com, the spam flaggers make no secret of their activities, and are quite proud of their achievements in free speech suppression. Rather than abuse Twitter’s terms of service to retaliate in kind, Twitchy is compiling a list of spam flag perpetrators and targets, and going through proper channels to call the situation to Twitter’s attention. Unsurprisingly, links between the spam flag fascists and the “Stop Rush Limbaugh” movement were quickly uncovered.
It would appear that the spam response by Twitter is an automated system, while account re-activation requires busy system administrators to intervene personally. That’s why the brown shirts were able to knock down Loesch’s account repeatedly, after the admins re-instated it. If the Twitter software allows spam flagging to be disabled for an account that has been targeted for abuse, it’s long past time for them to perform such a service for Chris Loesch. At the very least, they should dramatically raise the threshold for spam flagging on his account. It’s always possible that his account could be hijacked for nefarious purposes in the future – the administrators of gigantic systems are extremely reluctant to hand “the keys to the kingdom” to anyone, for security reasons – but at this point, it seems clear that review by an administrator should be necessary to shut Loesch’s account down. The jackboot prints are too heavy to ignore.
Twitter’s Terms of Service discuss spamming at some length, but do not directly address the abuse of the spam flagging system. It’s time for them to rectify that oversight, and begin banning the spam flaggers. As the Environmental Protection Agency recently explained, “crucifying” a few miscreants brings the rest quickly into line.
Spam flagging is easy and cost-free at the moment – it requires nothing but a wave of coordinated mouse clicks, and there’s nothing to prevent the brown shirts from doing it repeatedly, as the Chris Loesch incident demonstrates. The organized destruction of user accounts is obviously contrary to Twitter’s spirit as a free and open social media space. It’s meant to be a town hall, not a dingy back alley patrolled by gangs wielding digital truncheons.
The final layer of irony is that Loesch got onto the spam-flaggers’ target list because he was defending his wife from a series of vile, misogynistic assaults. As he explained to the Washington Times, “It was business as usual for her I suppose. Veiled threats, rape and murder comments, the typical liberal misogynist slag. Being the chivalrous and testosterone filled being I am requires me to protect the woman I love and call out the haters for being the ‘anonymous internet tough guys’ they are… Needless to say they don’t like being called out and struck back by reporting me as a spammer or worse.”
If you’re a liberal who sincerely believes in the freedom of expression, and truly values the exchange of ideas over thug tactics, this would be a great time to demonstrate the strength of your convictions by speaking up for Chris Loesch and the other flag-spammer targets. The rest of us would very much appreciate some reassurance that such liberals still exist, in great enough numbers to make a difference.
Update: Chris Loesch’s account was re-activated, hopefully for good this time, at about 1:30 PM EST Monday afternoon.