Was Twitter right to ban a purpored news source?
Credit is essential
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? But what are the ethics and legalities of Tweeting out news? It turns out there are questions about authors’ rights and copyright, of course. How do we know what is news? It’s not news if you give no idea of the source. And copyright law in theory tells us that we must.
What happened this time, then? Over the New Year weekend Twitter.com suspended an account called "Politics For AlI" (P4A: @PoliticsForAlI) that had hundreds of thousands of followers. The Press Gazette enquired of Twitter what the grounds for the suspension were. The answer was remarkably 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 here. P4A had claimed: "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". (Sic, throughout.)
And @GuyTories quote-Tweeted this with the comment that it was "using a random French opinion piece as if it is some[thing] concrete like to the Paris agreement for clout"
And why might P4A be doing that? It all makes more sense when we note that 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".
It was rare that P4A Tweets would directly state their sources. As the Press Gazette observed before the account was deleted, "a follow-up tweet would typically link back to the original source." Such Tweets that reply to other Tweets are seen much, much less often than the main message - the Freelance estimates that our reply Tweets often receive one-twentieth the views. So were Nick and P4A in breach of copyright? Twitter wouldn’t want to raise this, because it’d do so much damage to its business model.
There is an exception to copyright law that allows quoting for the purposes of "reporting news and current affairs". It is essential to open news reporting. It comes with the demand that the quote 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 technical provision for links to original articles. So P4A fails.
On the question of referencing, 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. In English, we have the law on attribution.
Sam Bright reports, however, that Nick Moar was last year appointed a social media editor at the Spectator - "the right-wing magazine formerly edited by Boris Johnson". Notoriety, at least, was achieved.