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Politics for few

DOES IT MATTER when Twitter cancels an account that features a lot of news stories? Doesn't that look like... an interference with free expression?

Twitter notice: account suspended

@PoliticsForAlI has been suspended

The recent abuse of the term "free expression" to mean "my right to say anything that crosses my mind, particularly if it's wrong" may offer a clue. It turns out there are more important questions about media ethics and authors' rights.

So when Twitter cancelled an account called "Politics For AlI" (P4A: @PoliticsForAlI) with hundreds of thousands of followers, we paused for thought. As did the Press Gazette, which enquired of Twitter what the grounds for the suspension were. The answer was a bland "The accounts you referenced were suspended for violating the Twitter Rules on platform manipulation and spam."

P4A had gained all those followers by Tweeting out clickbaity lines from stories in established news outlets. Not infrequently, these would not be the main point of the story, but the angle most likely to generate outrage Tweets.

One of those who tracked the more egregious examples was Twitter user @GuyTories, whose last example we randomly present:

TWEET: 'using a random French opinion piece as if it is some[thing] concrete like to the Paris agreement for clout'; RESPONDS TO: 'NEW: In order to respect the Paris agreement and save the planet, an ideal citizen must: * Shower three times per week, max 8 minutes * Stop playing video games * Buy three shirts max per year and two trousers * 2 hours max of streaming per day'.

@GuyTories writes: "using a random French opinion piece as if it is some[thing] concrete like to the Paris agreement for clout"

This makes more sense when we note that back in May 2021, as the Press Gazette reminds us, Sam Bright in Byline Times reported detecting that P4A was operated by one Nick Moar, "an 18-year-old student who has in the past been a vocal supporter of Brexit and the Conservative Party".

Almost always, Nick's Tweets would be unsourced. Sometimes, as the Press Gazette observed before the account was deleted, "a follow-up tweet would typically link back to the original source." Such reply Tweets are seen much, much less often than the main message - the Freelance estimates that they often receive one-hundredth the views.

So was Nick in breach of copyright? Twitter wouldn't want to raise this, because it'd do so much damage to its business model.

Twitter notice: account deleted

Account @NickGMoar has been deleted

The exception to copyright law that allows quoting for the purposes of "reporting news and current affairs" is essential to open news reporting. It comes with the demand for a credit to the source: it must be "accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement (unless this would be impossible for reasons of practicality or otherwise)". What that last parenthetical phrase, introduced in 2014, means, no-one knows, because it's not been tested in court. But acknowledgement outside the published quotation is, the Freelance believes, clearly not "sufficient" - and proper acknowledgement is not "impossible" when Twitter makes special provision for links to original articles.

This is, of course, an important issue in journalism ethics. The Freelance has long been fascinated by the Amazonian language Tariana, in which it is a grammatical error to convey knowledge without indicating how you know it. Failing that in English, we have the law on moral rights, requiring attribution.

Sam Bright reports, however, that Nick Moar was appointed a social media editor at the Spectator - "the right-wing magazine formerly edited by Boris Johnson". Notoriety, at least, was achieved.

28 January 2022

Nick Moar gives his account of events in the Spectator here.