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Was it right to dox Stephen Miller? That’s the wrong question

If Twitter wants to enforce rules fairly, it needs to reexamine what fairness means

President Trump Speaks On Infrastructure Meeting Held At Trump Tower Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last week, White House advisor Stephen Miller’s cell phone number was shared widely on social media after being published online, and the response from Twitter was remarkably swift and thorough: The platform not only locked or suspended the accounts of users who shared the number, but also those who linked to the article that had doxed Miller.

If there’s anything surprising about Twitter’s response, particularly for those who have watched harassment campaigns of women and minorities continue on the service for years with relative impunity, it was how quick and decisive Twitter managed to be in this particular situation. Although Twitter has taken numerous steps in recent years to address harassment on the platform, its rules remain vague, its enforcement lackadaisical and haphazard at best — and its tolerance of abuse by powerful users something still far closer to policy than the opposite.

The response of many Twitter users, on the other hand, should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the service’s tremendous capacity to generate humor, innovation, and memeification. The phone number was rapidly unraveled to its component parts, spliced and digested into a series of jokes, images and even puzzles designed to continue sharing the number while dodging Twitter’s censors.

That Miller had likely long since handed off the phone to the Secret Service after the initial deluge of calls and texts by then was somewhat besides the point. For many, particularly those enraged and shuddering in horror at the cruel treatment of immigrants and families at the American border, sharing the number provided not only a moment of dark humor or catharsis, but something even more potent: a tiny, red-hot piece of vulnerability that they could exploit against the architect of the policy ripping weeping children from their parents’ arms, the man who reportedly “enjoys seeing those pictures at the border,” the man who had called it a “simple decision.”

As with the hand-wringing around the punching of Nazis, this touched off a debate around fairness and hypocrisy: If you oppose doxing as a repugnant tool of harassment, how can you ethically celebrate its use, even when it is deployed against someone you hate or oppose? Rules, after all, are rules (or as Miller himself has said so often in defense of the family separation policy, “the law is the law”). It’s an attractive line of thinking for those who find comfort in absolutes, the black and white of right and wrong. Faced with the spiraling complications of gray areas, there’s something that can seem both fair and personally righteous about enforcing rules as rigidly and dispassionately as possible — even when it leads to Inspector Javert levels of obsession with law and order regardless of context or human cost.

This sort of legalistic approach has often permeated the “both sides” debates of the last several years — typically at the urging of those who benefit most from taking questions of power and harm off the table, and want to reframe punching down as a boxing match between equals. It’s how Gamergate harassers wheedled the games industry and many of its journalists into distracted chin-stroking over disingenuous claims about ethical concerns rather than full-throated condemnation; it’s how Trump managed to reframe a neo-Nazi rally where a woman was murdered by a white supremacist into a conflict with “some very fine people on both sides”; it’s how Twitter itself managed to cling to the swaying, decaying mast of free speech at all costs for so very long — even when the cost was persistent brutalization, often of its most vulnerable users.

Twitter should certainly enforce its rules fairly and demand ethical behavior from its users. But if it claims to do so, we should examine exactly what fairness and ethical behavior means in this context. Rather than the sort of “simple decision” framing that Miller himself disingenuously invokes as a call for order, it is a very difficult question indeed, one that involves the complex dynamics of social power and speech, and the differing responsibilities and roles of governments, private companies and individuals.

The question of power — and when it can be ignored or used as a protective shield for bad actors — cannot be disregarded in conversations about Twitter and abuse, not least of all because exceptions for the powerful are built into the abuse policies of Twitter itself. Although Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Del Harvey, has said that “the rules are the rules, we enforce them the same way for everybody,” the new rules it announced in December 2017 to curb hateful conduct and abusive behavior carve out a specific exception for “military or government entities.” (Whether or not a tweet is “newsworthy” is also a consideration.)

That means these rules don’t apply to many of its most powerful, news-making users — including the President of the United States, a man who has abused his bully pulpit to dox his political foes and who frequently uses his 53 million user Twitter following as a cudgel against private citizens and even 17-year-old girls. So the rules are the rules for everyone, unless you’re really, really important. Power can impact you a great deal if you have it; it can affect you a great deal if you don’t. If only Twitter’s abuse policies cared as much about the latter as the former.

Twitter long touted itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and its inability to reckon with this legacy — or how blindness and indifference to power dynamics are still embedded into its system — remains a persistent issue. The company’s ban on doxing, or the publication of personal information like phone numbers or addresses with intent to incite harassment, is relatively recent; for years, the platform operated with a laissez-faire attitude that turned its service into a free-for-all playground for harassers and blue-check verified Neo-Nazis. It only got around to banning doxing (along revenge porn) in 2015, after years of permitting the tactics to flourish and terrorize — and about a month after Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted that “we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we’ve sucked at it for years.”

Twitter’s new policies on hateful conduct remain notoriously porous; despite the new rules, average users who report violent content, including death threats, are still routinely told that there is “no violation of Twitter’s rules.” These rules are also embarrassingly vulnerable to hate groups that play euphemistic shell games around terminology; they’re not white supremacists, they are often quick to declare, but “white civil rights advocates,” “white identitarians” or “Western chauvinists.” Although the American Nazi Party was subsequently banned, along with white supremacist groups like Vanguard America or League of the South, plenty of people who are white supremacists in all but name continue to spread hate on the platform. Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, the “white civil rights” activists who organized the Charlottesville rally where one woman was murdered, remain active users — albeit after a slap that removed their verified user checkmarks. They are not alone.

Unlike the government, Twitter is not bound by the First Amendment and owes Spencer and his ilk no such indulgence — not access to its service, the protection of its rules, or the benefit of the doubt, particularly when their barely concealed goal is to undermine the civil rights, humanity, and yes, the freedom of speech of their targets. But for now, the social media platform’s most newsworthy and calculating abusers remain free to operate with impunity, confident that Twitter’s preoccupation with free speech means it will never meaningfully stop them.

You can ask if it was wrong to dox Stephen Miller. That’s not the most useful question, though — particularly at a time when Twitter’s guidelines remain systematically riddled with inconsistencies and blind spots that enable dangerous racists and abusers. Indeed, transforming a conversation about systematic injustice into a conversation about civility towards the powerful is exactly what many of them want. If Twitter’s insistence on protecting users are “too big to ban” — or careful to sow hatred under euphemistic labels — has done anything, it’s give men like Trump and Miller (along with the @Pepe420s that pervasively line the edges of Twitter replies like so much mold) another megaphone to spread their racist and untruthful ideas with absolutely no consequences.

As has often been the case with internet platforms, Twitter articulates its values most clearly in the things it doesn’t say, doesn’t do, and doesn’t prioritize at a time when it matters more than ever. Twitter should enforce its rules fairly: by applying them even (and especially) to the powerful, and by refusing to let racists, trolls and bad actors leverage them as immunity for abusive and hateful behavior, especially towards marginalized users. It would be much easier to care about Miller’s doxing, if only as an abstract principle, if it were clear when the platform plans to start.