Lessons for the fight against censorship from the restoration of classconscious.org’s Twitter account.

On June 18th, the Twitter account of classconscious.org (@classconscious1) was suspended without warning or justification. We immediately launched a political counter attack against this outrage, linking our censorship to the censoring of other pro-Assange accounts. After three weeks, on July 9th, our account was restored. Important political lessons can be drawn about the power of solidarity in overcoming attacks on free speech by the capitalist tech oligarchs. The fight for Assange and Manning’s freedom cannot be won outside of the broader struggle against the drive to dictatorship, fascism and world war. 

Arrest at Melbourne protest at UK consulate (photo: Anthony Snowden)

The suspension of the account of classconscious.org occurred only hours after it had tweeted an article covering the global solidarity protests held 12th-14th June, which were called out by classconscious.org to coincide with Assange’s most recent court appearance. The article covered the unprovoked and violent arrests of two peaceful Assange protestors outside the UK consulate in Melbourne on June 14th. The same day (June 18) – @classconscious1 was silenced, the account of Assange campaigner @PhillipAdams64 was also suspended without warning. Phillip Adams had just tweeted that the change.org petition, he began and manages, had reached 150,000 signatures. This petition (now at 160,000 & currently going before Australian parliament) has become a powerful symbol and manifestation of the mass, global support for Assange.

In response to this dual suspension, classconscious.org immediately launched a joint open letter with @PhillipAdams64 demanding Twitter immediately reinstate the two accounts – which was signed by around forty-five, friendly Assange campaigners from around the world. 

The solidarity campaign was, however, given real momentum when the Bay Action Commitee to Free Assange -unexpectedly and unprompted -announced they would be holding a protest on July 8th outside the Twitter corporate HQ in San Francisco. Within hours of an article about this protest being tweeted from the account of classconscious.org member, Davey Heller (@socialist_davey), Twitter had restored the account of @PhillipAdams64!

The @classconscious1 account, however, remained suspended. In a complete abrogation of natural justice, classconscious.org, after unsuccessfully appealing their mysterious suspension, were informed they had repeatedly broken Twitter’s rules (and permenantly suspended) but were not told which specific rules were broken – with no specific tweets or examples referenced. 

However, on July 8th, a small but powerful solidarity protest did indeed occur outside Twitter HQ, highlighting the censorship of not just @classconscious1 but other pro-Assange Twitter accounts. The task of fighting a giant, amorphous, US multinational from our base in Australia was a challenge. The @BayAssange protest in San Francisco allowed us to have a voice that could speak directly to Twitter.

Within 24 hours of the July 8th Twitter HQ protest, a classconscious.org article reporting on the event was tweeted from the newly-adopted Twitter account: @classconsciouscensored – and shockingly, suddenly, minus any communication from Twitter, @classconscious1 was fully restored!

July 8th rally outside Twitter HQ

The timing of the restoration of both @PhillipAdams64 and @classconscious1 was clearly not random but tied completely to the announcement and holding of the rally in San Francisco. Twitter, like the other Silicon Valley tech giants, is of course integrated with the US military/security complex. However, Twitter is also a for-profit company with concern for its image amongst its current and potential future users. This, obviously creates a tension that can be exploited to fight back against censorship. Twitter, however, does not seem to care how much fuss you create within the cyber confines of the ‘Twitterverse’. The crucial component in our campaign was the fact our solidarity campaign managed to jump out of Twitter ‘into real life’. The fact that even a small number of people were prepared to attend a rally outside Twitter HQ and the fact mainstream media attended (even if they didn’t broadcast the footage) was enough to spook Twitter. 

This theory is backed up by the example of the twice -suspended and twice-ressurrected Twitter account of Barrett Brown, the award winning journalist who was jailed over his involvement in trying to publicise the Stratfor files, which also occured in June. Two times, Barrett’s account was pulled (after he responded to provocations from fascists and trolls) and both times was restored, after media, most notably the Daily Dot, started publicising his suspension and reaching out to Twitter for comment. 

Message received by classconscious.org from Twitter rejecting their appeal.

The restoration of the classconscious.org account by Twitter, and the experience of others such as Barrett Brown, show, that despite the corporation’s insistence that these decisions are being made purely for supposed breaches of Twitter’s Terms of service (TOS), they are, in fact, political decisions based on political calculations. Twitter’s rules are so broad and so vague, that coupled with an opaque decision-making process – they allow for the targeting of virtually any operating account. All that is needed, is for a political opponent/s (or state provocateur/s) to lodge a vexatious complaint, or for a state agency to directly request the suspension of an account and Twitter can hide behind the bureacratic cover of its ‘rules and processes’. 

Classconscious.org insisted from the first moment that our suspension was political and raised serious political issues. We are, forever grateful to those who responded to this perspective and our plight, and showed solidarity. However, it was disappointing that others within the Assange campaign, both publicly and privately, told us that we most likey had breached Twitter’s TOS and therefore had no-one to blame but ourselves for our censorship. 

Regretfully, it must also be acknowledged that we received no meaningful support from the vast majority of the prominent Twitter accounts within the Defend Assange campaign- ie. the tweeting or retweeting of news of our suspension or signing onto our anti-censorship open letter. One can speculate that some of these accounts were not particularly upset at our silencing due to their hostility to the criticisms that classconscious.org has made over the last twelve months of @Unity4J’s platforming of far right figures on their online vigils. Many of these prominent Assange ‘gatekeeper’ Twitter accounts have blocked @classconscious1, for example. 

It must be stated that this lack of solidarity on behalf of prominent voices within the Defend Assange Campaign was very short-sighted. On June 20th, in our open letter, classconscious.org warned:

A line must therefore be drawn in the sand. We cannot allow pro-Assange Twitter accounts to be picked off a few at a time. If the banning of the classconscious.org and Phillip Adams’ accounts on the same day is part of an escalating purge of pro-Assange accounts by Twitter, then it poses an existential threat to this international campaign. It is not hard to imagine if these suspensions are allowed to stand, that, in the future crucial months of the battle to save the lives of Assange and Manning, more will soon follow. This targeted censorship will inevitably ensnare higher profile accounts, even @Wikileaks itself.

This has been borne out in recent days with the suspension of the @Unity4J Twitter account, similarly without warning or justification. 

The lessons of classconscious.org’s successful overturning of its Twitter ban are clear. Such censorship must be seen as political and fought as such. All attempts to reduce it to bureaucratic ‘breaches’ of the TOS must be rejected. These Twitter suspensions are attacks on free speech that must be fought as part of the broader defence of democratic rights and against the drive towards fascism, dictatorship and world war. 

International solidarity is the key. “An injury to one, is an injury to all.” must be the motto of the Defend Assange campaign. Just as court and jail solidarity are crucial elements of any left-wing or socialist struggle, solidarity in the face of online censorship must form part of the collective DNA of the Assange campaign. This applies to the accounts of both smaller and more prominent activists and groups.  Principled positions must be taken to defend the free speech of others in the campaign in spite of any political differences that may exist. Whilst classconscious.org does not resile from its right to criticise and debate the perspective of others, we understand the need for a united front against internet censorship. Therefore, we maintain our criticisms of @Unity4J’s inclusion and platforming of the far right, but unequivocally condemn their censorship by Twitter. 

Ironically, our experience shows that it is important to break out of the echo chamber of the ‘Twittersphere’. Coverage in other media outlets is still powerful. Ironically, the intervention of the ‘Bay Action Committee to Free Assange’ demonstrated the efficacy of good old-fashioned, physical protests. A handful of people prepared to turn up outside the Twitter HQ with a microphone, banners and placards were obviously noted as a potential threat by a company whose CEO Jack Dorsey is worth nearly five billion dollars. 

Our campaign has not stopped the onslaught of online censorship being directed against the pro-Assange campaign, nor of that being waged more broadly to control what the global youth and international working-class can read, watch, hear and learn from. The persecution of Assange and Manning exemplifies the crisis-driven, desperation of the capitalist ruling-class (particularly US imperialism) to prevent political truths becoming widely available. Whilst Twitter’s restoration of @classconscious1 (and @PhillipAdams64) is only a small victory for free speech in a much larger free speech campaign, it does emphatically demonstrate the power of international working-class solidarity. 

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studies history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

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