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Thursday, December 8, 2016

A prominent conservative blogger/provocateur known for trolling has been suspended by Twitter. Chuck C. Johnson, who runs the website Got News, is a guy even right wingers feel gives right wingers a bad name. He has long been a malicious user, often tweeting hateful accusations and working to uncover people he felt were not telling the truth.

That has included such prominent politicians as President Barack Obama, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). He also released private information of two New York Times reporters (a practice known as “doxxing”), and has espoused violence against everyone from Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to Charles Johnson (no relation), the political blogger and owner of the website Little Green Footballs, who has been the target of stalking by Chuck C. Johnson.

Prompting the ban was a May 24 tweet where he urged people to “Go to gotnews.com/donate if you want to give money to taking out @deray,” referring to DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist involved with protests in Baltimore and Ferguson.

Although he’s been suspended several times before, he’s always been reinstated. Despite that precedent, Twitter sent Johnson an email Monday morning, notifying him that his account “will not be restored.”

It’s not just @chuckcjohnson that has been suspended. It’s all the accounts he made afterwards, in short succession — @citizentrolling, @freechucknow — even the account for his site, @gotnewsdotcom. He is essentially banned from the website as of this writing, although Twitter told Mashable it does not respond to inquiries on individual accounts. Both his personal website and Got News are also unavailable.

In the last week alone, Johnson has tweeted about social justice warriors, a favorite target of conservatives, specifically saying nasty things about Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student known for carrying a mattress around campus as a symbol of the university’s response to her charges of rape against another student. Sulkowicz graduated last week.

Last year, Johnson made waves by inserting himself into the Rolling Stone/UVA fiasco by allegedly naming the student at the center of the story — “Jackie” was a pseudonym used to protect the girl who said she was the victim of a horrendous rape — and posted pictures of women that turned out to be false.

He frequently targets those at the intersection of politics, culture, activism, and social concerns. “I’m interested in taboos. I don’t believe in publishing conventional material because that’s not where my comparative advantage is,” he told Ryan Holiday of the New York Observer. Holiday wrote a book that Johnson has cited as influential, and he uses some of the same controversial tactics that Holiday has espoused, but for reasons Holiday finds distasteful.

The way Johnson operates, he claims, is his way of uncovering the “lies” that underpin modern media.

“I take risks that other people won’t take because I think the story requires it,” he told the late journalist David Carr in an interview late last year. Carr wrote, “He has a knack for staking an outrageous, attacking position on a prominent news event, then pounding away until he is noticed.”

Despite his website, Twitter is the platform that Johnson has taken to most readily.

“I like to use Twitter because that’s where the self-appointed cognoscenti create public opinion, i.e. the media or the political class…I mess with Twitter because that’s where the people who need to be messed with are,” he told Holiday.

Many Twitter users — and indeed, outlets — have called him out, saying that he violates terms of service, which he clearly does. David Holmes at PandoDaily points out that Johnson’s defense — that Twitter “has a problem with controversial thoughts and [so] has opted for censorship,” that he “was speaking metaphorically,” and that his tweet is “a call to support ‘investigative journalism'”– is not only self-serving but “profoundly leftwing [italics added].”

The letter suggests that…the company has a responsibility to the public interest that transcends its God-given freedom to do business as it sees fit, and that transcends the wider interests of shareholders and advertisers… It’s also the most populist and anti-corporate thing he’s ever written.

As Caitlin Dewey explains at The Washington Post, “the First Amendment defines the relationship between you, as a citizen, and the government. It does not define the relationship between, say, you and a private corporation, or you and the university you attend, or you and your neighborhood association.” Radical free speech, the kind where people can say anything to anyone, consequences be damned, is increasingly becoming regulated online, she writes, as people are becoming less tolerant of hate speech.

Twitter has been under pressure to tamp down instances of hate speech, harassment and abuse, as the platform has been struggling to retain users and grow.

Last month, the site updated its policy so that users could be suspended for general threats. Previously, threats had to be “direct” and “specific” — which allowed trolls to be as vague and harmful as possible. Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO, said in a leaked memo obtained by The Verge, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day.” He vowed to make major changes: “We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.” Since then, it has banned revenge porn and improved features for reporting threats to law enforcement.

While it remains to be seen what Johnson will do next — besides try to sue — Twitter’s move is heartening to the many advocates for online civility and those, like activist Mckesson and Little Green Footballs‘ Charles Johnson, who have been targets of his threats.

Photo: Chuck C. Johnson has been effectively banned by Twitter for hate speech, after he threatened a civil rights activist. This is the first major example of a high-profile user being suspended by the platform.  (The Wayback Machine/Twitter)

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