Earlier this month, the Twitter account of musician, activist, and avid tweeter Talib Kweli was locked following an exchange he had with an extremist Texas attorney, Jason Lee Van Dyke, who threatened Kweli, while using racist, ableist, and homophobic language.
“His first tweet to me was that he was a defense attorney and worked with mentally challenged people,” explained Kweli. “He wrote, ‘You are stupider than the mentally challenged people I work with,’ and so that caught my eye immediately, because why would a defense attorney be upset at a black stranger and starting using his own clients to engage in harassment?”
Kweli responded to the tweet, explaining that he doesn’t start arguments, but is willing to engage when challenged. “And so, I engaged him,” he said. “And the way I engage people who harass me like that is I always ask them to explain their position, because if you ask a racist or a bigot to explain their position, it falls apart.”
As the Twitter fight escalated–and Van Dyke responded with epithets and threats–Kweli eventually decided to post Van Dyke’s publicly available business information, a move he says was made in the hopes of holding Van Dyke accountable with his clients and the Texas State Bar. Twitter eventually suspended Van Dyke’s account. But it also locked Kweli’s. Being locked on Twitter meant Kweli couldn’t tweet from his account until he deleted the tweet with Van Dyke’s contact information. He eventually did, but should he have been forced to?
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. While Twitter’s rules prohibit the posting of personal information for purposes of harassment, Kweli’s action seems to fall into a bit of a gray area. He posted the business information of a man touting his profession, and the rules do allow for posting business information. That’s why Kweli disagrees with Twitter’s decision to block his account.
As online harassment and Twitter’s response to it remain a topic of conversation in the news cycle, we spoke with Kweli about his first-hand experience in the middle of Twitter’s social media battleground.
Fast Company: How did you end up posting Van Dyke’s business contact information on Twitter?
Talib Kweli: It is a duty of mine to protect myself and the community I represent. If someone worked for an airline like American or United, and was harassing people like this, I would post the United phone number and encourage people to demand accountability from this company. And so that’s essentially what I did. I posted his business address and his business phone number, and encouraged people to call him up, and encouraged people to demand accountability from this lawyer. Now, Twitter has suspended his account–which they should have–but they also blocked me, asking me to remove the tweet where I posted this guy’s address, because they said it is harassment.
This is something that I disagree with. I feel like as a member of a community, we have to hold business owners accountable. This wasn’t just some random person like a college student or a stay-at-home father. This is person saying that they were a lawyer running a business to represent people. I feel like people need to know the address and phone number of that man’s business, because he’s a lawyer, because he says that he that represents people. I feel like we have a right to ask this man for accountability.
FC: The man who was harassing you had his account suspended entirely, right?
TK: Right. He can get back on Twitter, but he has to do it with a whole new account. What Twitter should do is when they suspend accounts, they should suspend the IP address. I had people call me n—-r every day, and they get suspended every day and they start a new account every day, all from the same IP address.
FC: As someone who has been on the receiving end of this quite a bit, what do you think Twitter needs to do to improve?
TK: Two weeks before this happened, I had people creating accounts named after my father or my mother and using those accounts to harass me and others saying racist things. When I reported it to Twitter, they said these people did not violate terms of service. When I DMed Jack [Dorsey], the CEO of Twitter, he got on it and I received several emails from Twitter apologizing. They’ve apologized to me on numerous occasion for not doing their job properly, for not understanding when someone clearly violated the ToS, but I don’t think they’re doing their due diligence.
There’s no reason why I should know Twitter’s ToS better than the people who work on Twitter. There’s no reason why I should be able to identify bigots and racists and Nazis, better than the people who are at Twitter. The people who are in charge of flagging these accounts are not knowledgeable–on what social justice is, what racism is, or what constitutes it–to be able to be able to put things into context.
FC: So do you think it does mean better training for them to hire better people to do this?
TK: We cannot, in the digital age, say that online harassment, online racism, online bigotry is not real. David Duke should not have a Twitter account. [Jason Kessler] should not have a Twitter account and much less be verified. Twitter, because of their business model, [feels] they have to be fair. But under the guise of fairness, under the guise of free speech, what they do is allow bigotry and racism. Twitter’s people need to be trained to recognize [racism and harassment] before someone like me gets death threats or gets called a n—-r.
FC: It seems like you think Twitter spends a long time apologizing, but not actually changing anything. Do you feel like that’s true?
TK: That’s exactly right. Twitter has been very, very good to me when it comes to apologizing. I have received numerous apologies from Twitter, but why are you apologizing this often, and why is it not changing? No one new is joining Twitter and the interaction for all users has gone down drastically, and I believe it’s because they have not found a way to to protect users from being harassed. Too often when I report harassment, they told me to just leave it to them, but they don’t respond. And I shouldn’t [have to] get things changed by DMing Jack.
FC: Still, it is pretty clear in Twitter’s ToS, that you’re not allowed to post contact information for people.
TK: The exact sentence is you cannot post information, even if it’s publicly available, for the purpose of inciting harassment. So, back to the airline analogy. If American Airlines kicks somebody off the plane unfairly and people post a number to American Airlines, saying call this number and demand accountability, Twitter doesn’t have a problem with that, do they? They don’t. So, if a lawyer is threatening to kill people of color, and calling them f—-t and n—-r, why would Twitter have a problem with me posting the address and the phone number that’s listed on a website called FindALawyer.com, hosted by the Texas State Bar? It’s not like I doxxed this person.
FC: Of course, you don’t have to be on Twitter.
TK: Right. Absolutely. I can leave. Or I can delete that tweet right now and be back immediately. [Note: this interview took place before Kweli deleted the tweet.] But for me it’s a principle thing at this point. And to be honest with you, I probably will do that at some point. But right now, I feel like this is a stand I need to take right now.