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Just a ‘speed bump’: White nationalist says a Twitter ban won’t stop the spread of his views

Matthew Heimbach, center, chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, and fellow supporters spread support for their third-party movement in Beattyville, Ky., in March 2016. (Michael M. Reaves for The Washington Post)

When Twitter started cracking down on users who were engaging in “hateful conduct” in November, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a list of white nationalists whose accounts appeared to be unaffected by the move. At the top of that list was Matthew Heimbach, a 20-something white nationalist who used his Twitter account to promote racist, anti-Semitic beliefs.

For a portion of 2016, Heimbach had a verified Twitter account, a designation that is seen as an implicit symbol of status for some Twitter users and has, in the past, been taken away from others for breaking the platform’s rules. But as of Tuesday, Heimbach’s account has been suspended on Twitter.

“The Twitter Rules prohibit violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct, and multiple account abuse, and we will take action on accounts violating those policies,” a Twitter official said in an emailed statement in response to the suspension.

Twitter also directed The Washington Post to its recent announcement about its “hateful conduct” policy, which says Twitter “prohibits specific conduct that targets people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.”

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In November, Twitter announced that it wanted to make it easier for people to report violations of that policy, and that it had “retrained” its moderators to enforce it more consistently. Twitter has long struggled to address calls for the platform to do more to combat trolls, harassment and abuse. In the past, critics have cited Heimbach’s verified account as part of the evidence that Twitter still wasn’t doing enough to enforce those policies.

A person familiar with the matter flagged several of Heimbach’s past tweets. One such post reads, “Remove Jewish bankers and kebab #MakePeaceIn5Words.” Another, in reply to other users, says “Literally the answer is to remove (((them))),” using a racist meme that has been used by white supremacists to identify Jewish people.

A third tweet reads, “Leftist protesters blocking the road with weapons, threats and violence while making you fear for your life? #HitTheGas”

Public images of Heimbach’s past tweets also show a history of tweets quoting Nazi leaders, and calling for his supporters to “remove” Jewish people from society. (Note: some of the following tweets contain offensive language.)

Heimbach’s profile among white nationalists has been rising ever since he graduated from Towson University in Maryland in 2013, where he founded the White Student Union. He now lives in Indiana, and has relationships with Storm­­front, the League of the South, the Aryan Terror Brigade and the National Socialist Movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Heimbach “has spent the better part of his active extremist life serving as a conduit between a number of racist organizations,” said Ryan Lenz, the editor of the SPLC’s Hatewatch blog. Heimbach has been effective as a white nationalist figure who works to unify extreme right groups who might otherwise not get along with a goal of building a coalition that is “unified under the banner of white pride,” he said.

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Heimbach says that his movement does not promote violence, but his actions have made him one of the more closely watched white nationalists in America for organizations such as the SPLC that track hate groups.

For years, Twitter has struggled to balance its commitment to free speech with its pledge to protect victims of abuse and harassment on the site. The suspension of Heimbach will no doubt be welcome news to those who have criticized the platform’s inconsistent enforcement of its own policies, and who have asked the site to do more to combat extremist hate speech and abuse on the platform.

“Twitter has a real problem on its hands. As we saw over the course of this campaign,” Lenz said, referring to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, “the forum has been abused by extremists to attack and vilify people.”

Twitter has taken some concrete steps recently to address these issues, but it’s still not entirely clear when the company’s “hateful conduct” rule applies to the tweets of white nationalists who use the site to promote their viewst.

In December, Twitter reinstated the verified Twitter account of Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who attracted substantial media attention in the months after Trump’s presidential victory. Spencer has seen the rise of Trump as an opportunity to bring his own views closer to the mainstream.

Twitter said in a statement at the time that Spencer was suspended for violating its policy against multiple accounts, and not permanently banned for “hateful conduct,” as many had assumed, based on the timing and context of his suspension.

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When Spencer was suspended just after the election, he claimed Twitter was “purging people on the basis of their views,” triggering many white nationalists and others who adapted Spencer’s alt-right moniker to believe that Twitter was systemically censoring them for their political beliefs.

In an email to The Washington Post, Heimbach said that he assumed he was suspended for a tweet the night before “in support of President Bashar al-Assad,” arguing that “Several accounts on Twitter with FSA flags on their profiles discussed organizing mass reporting of the post. I can only guess that my public support for President Assad and the nationalist coalition in Syria of the Russian Federation, Iran, and Hezbollah was the cause of the suspension.”

Twitter declined to comment on Heimbach’s stated reason for his suspension, but it’s worth noting that most Twitter suspensions are based on user reports of misconduct and aren’t necessarily a reflection of the most recent tweet or tweets from any given account.

Heimbach characterized his suspension as “a continuation of Twitter’s policy of banning Alt-Right accounts due to our success of using Twitter to promote White Nationalism.” He added: “I am appealing my suspension, but am looking forward to begin using Gab, a social media network with a far superior Free Speech policy than Twitter.”

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While many may hope that Twitter suspensions like Heimbach’s will help to limit the reach of white nationalists, Lenz said that is not a sure thing. “It remains to be seen what becomes of people who are not allowed on Twitter,” he said. In the case of Heimbach, who “banks on controversy” and already has his own organization and website and a powerful profile among his movement, a Twitter suspension could mean he “just has a little bit of a smaller microphone,” Lenz said.

In his email, Heimbach seemed to agree: “A ban from Twitter is nothing more than a mild speed-bump when it comes to getting out the message of White Nationalism,” he said. “We have extensive alternatives to Twitter and the mainstream media for getting our message out to our supporters, the youth, and the public at large.”

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