Don’t ban death wishes


Twitter swings wildly and widely in their editorial policies:

The four progressive Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad” expressed surprise on Friday night when Twitter posted about its policy against wishing harm or death to someone in light of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.
Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts have all spoken out about the threats they receive on social media and say Twitter isn’t doing enough about it.
Responding to media reporting Friday about people wishing death to the President, a verified account run by Twitter’s spokespeople tweeted, “tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against *anyone* are not allowed and will need to be removed.”
“Seriously though, this is messed up. The death threats towards us should have been taking more seriously by [Twitter],” Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted in response.
Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Pressley also tweeted suggesting Twitter had not taken threats made against them seriously.
Members of The Squad have often been victims of brutal social media attacks, including posts that have expressed wishes for their deaths.
I think we should – as the law does – distinguish between death threats or threats of harm on the one hand, and on the other wishing someone death or other misfortune. Threats of violence can be in many instances a criminal offence, and so a matter for the authorities to pursue. As such, the media have generally exercised due caution to avoid carrying this sort of speech in their forums. Even if threatening harm was not a criminal matter, most people can agree that such behaviour and rhetoric has no place in a democratic society, whether it’s directed against Donald Trump or the Squad. Ballots, not bullets, and all that.
On the other hand, merely wishing that somebody dies (most recently, the President), has an accident, gets sick, or becomes a victim of some other unfortunate circumstances, while clearly not pleasant – particularly to their targets (and yes, like many others online, I have been a recipient in the past) – should be considered an exercise in free speech. One of the most important benefits of free speech is the fact that it allows people to reveal themselves for who they are and for others to judge them accordingly. Personally, I believe wishing someone death is wrong (clearly, with some exceptions, like Hitler or Osama) and people who resort to such rhetoric are pathetic – but I want those pathetic people to be out in the open, so we can all know who they are. Restricting what we can say does not change minds, it merely hides opinions in the shadows, where they fester and then explode without warning onto unsuspecting public as actions rather than mere words. You ban words – which, no matter how nasty, are often a safety valve – you’re more likely to end up with sticks and stones.