This article was published on February 22, 2012

Twitter answers accusations of censorship for closing French anti-Sarkozy accounts

Twitter answers accusations of censorship for closing French anti-Sarkozy accounts

Did you know that the French President Nicolas Sarkozy had opened a Twitter account? Its opponents certainly do, as several parody and critical accounts have been suspended by Twitter over the last days, generating accusations of censorship.

This led the micro-blogging platform to publish a post on its French blog today. While it doesn’t directly mention the controversy, it is dedicated to clarifying Twitter’s policy with regard to parody and spam.

As you may expect, the company affirms its desire to engage and promote public debate, as long as users respect a certain set of rules.

One element will particularly interest anyone who’s running a parody account. According to the company, “parody tolerated and encouraged on Twitter, as long as it respects not some, but every condition set out publicly in [Twitter’s] guidelines on parody accounts”.

This may seem like a detail, but many users were assuming the list implicitly included “either/or” between each item – thinking, for example, that using the word ‘fake’ either in the account name or in the bio was acceptable. It is now very clear it is not the case, which means the conditions are much stricter than they initially appeared:

Guidelines for Parody, Commentary and Fan Accounts

In order to avoid impersonation, an account’s profile information should make it clear that the creator of the account is not actually the same person or entity as the subject of the parody/commentary. Here are some suggestions for marking your account:

  • Username: The username should not be the exact name of the subject of the parody, commentary, or fandom; to make it clearer, you should distinguish the account with a qualifier such as “not,” “fake,” or “fan.”
  • Name: The profile name should not list the exact name of the subject without some other distinguishing word, such as “not,” “fake,” or “fan.”
  • Bio: The bio should include a statement to distinguish it from the real identity, such as “This is a parody,” “This is a fan page,” “Parody Account,” “Fan Account,” “Role-playing Account,” or “This is not affiliated with…”
  • Communication with other users: The account should not, through private or public communication with other users, try to deceive or mislead others about your identity. For example, if operating a fan account, do not direct message other users implying you are the actual subject (i.e., person, band, sports team, etc.) of the fan account.

However, the use of the word ‘suggestions’ means that these rules are somewhat flexible – an impression confirmed by the following paragraph, which mentions role-playing accounts. While it suggests adding a clarification to the user’s bio, it doesn’t refer to the Twitter name itself.

Yet, recently suspended accounts  reportedly included @_nicolassarkozy, but also @mafranceforte (Sarkozy’s motto), @sarkocensure (“sarkozycensorship”) and @sarkozycestfini (“sarkozyitsover”).

As you can imagine, this ambiguity fueled criticism, and gave birth to the hashtag #sarkocensure; did Twitter take action because of political pressure?

Twitter now wants to set the record straight, and clarify that it didn’t go out of its way to please the French President, who is also candidate to his reelection.

Instead, the company declares that it did what it would have done for any user; as detailed in its guidelines, anyone can complain about a parody account and ask Twitter to take action.

This ‘anyone’ includes Sarkozy’s staff, who admitted having made a request against some accounts, but shouldn’t give them any privilege – when deciding whether or not to suspend an account, Twitter promises it will “treat everyone as equals”.

On the other hand, suspended users also get a chance to comply with Twitter rules and get their account back. This is what @_nicolassarkozy apparently did; its account has been back online since yesterday, but its account name now reads ‘Nicolas Sarkozy fake’.

As for other suspended accounts, Twitter implies without saying that they were suspended for violating its spam policy, rather than its parody guidelines. It now remains to be seen whether this veiled clarification will put an end to the controversy.

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