Social networking sites' terms of service are meant to prevent fraud, defamation and hate speech, not the expression of legitimate political sentiments, however controversial. But enforcing them can sometimes have the same effect.
In late July, an anonymous user of Twitter, the microblogging service, created a parody account to criticize Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, over his opposition to the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." While the Twitter stream was titled "(Not) Abe Foxman," it used the handle @abefoxman. "I oppose bigotry against Muslims, except when I support bigotry against Muslims," (Not) Abe Foxman wrote in a typical Tweet.
But on August 2, all of (Not) Abe Foxman's posts were deleted. That was done at the request of the ADL, confirms, Steve Sheinberg, the group's associate director for civil rights and a special assistant to Foxman. The ADL made its complaint on the grounds that it violated two of Twitter's rules: one that prohibits impersonation, and another that forbids unauthorized use of trademarks. "People are going to make parody," says Sheinberg. But with (Not) Abe Foxman using the ADL logo, and with his Tweets popping up in other users' feeds simply as @abefoxman, "that become, in our view, crossing the line."
A Twitter spokesman declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss users' accounts, but clearly they felt Foxman's complaint had merit. But if that reasoning could be used to shut down (Not) Abe Foxman, why not apply it to another parody account, @BPGlobalPR, which uses a subtly modified version of BP's logo -- and which has 190,000 followers? Censoring users' content simply because someone finds it objectionable is itself objectionable, as Facebook recently acknowledged after deleting a post by Sarah Palin that a number of users had flagged as "hate speech."
Of course, if the party behind (Not) Abe Foxman feels he was wrongly silenced, he can always re-register as @notabefoxman or @fakeabefoxman. Meanwhile, the real Abraham Foxman is in control of @abefoxman, but he's not tweeting there yet. "We're not sure what the ultimate disposition of that is going to be," says Sheinberg, "whether we're going to use it or return it to the wild."
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