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The Straw that broke Twitter

The Straw that Broke the Blue Bird’s Back

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I want my words back.

That includes the words I borrowed from The Wall Street Journal that got me permanently suspended from Twitter, the micro-blogging platform and virtual battlefront of American social and political life.

Who am I? No one special. Just a Midwestern mom with a few college degrees who can write a sentence. For two-plus years, I posted data, analysis, opinion, and questions about the legality and effectiveness of pandemic-response policies on Twitter. I used a literary pen name – Emma Woodhouse – though I never kept my real identity a secret. I created the account in spring 2020 and accrued a modest 38,000 followers before the end.

It wasn’t until July 2021, when President Biden said Big Tech was “killing people” by not doing more to remove content that encouraged vaccine hesitancy, that some of my posts were deemed harmful. 

First it was a data-verified claim about the low risk that Covid poses to nearly every child. Then it was a critique of the public health messaging that vaccines and masks provide equivalent protection against the virus. Next, I was dinged for questioning the CDC’s motives in applying a different standard to defining “vaccine breakthrough” Covid cases than to other cases. Later, it was an expression of distrust in any pediatrician who wouldn’t be honest about the risk of myocarditis from vaccination versus infection in teen boys.

The straw that broke the Blue Bird’s back was my post of a Wall Street Journal article by Allysia Finley on July 5, 2022. I quoted her directly, “The FDA conspicuously lowered its standards to approve covid vaccines for toddlers. Why?” and linked her piece. The next day, my account was locked and removed from public view. Twitter denied my appeal and won’t restore the account.

I understand Twitter is a private company, ergo, my First Amendment rights don’t apply. But with evidence of the Biden Administration pressuring Twitter, I have to wonder whether the same strategy was applied to me.

I was a relentless critic not only of the CDC, but also of my Governor J.B. Pritzker’s pandemic-response policies and pet projects. I called him the most destructive, tyrannical, anti-child governor in Illinois history. I poked holes in state and local health departments’ data spin. I highlighted his hypocrisy. I scolded him for closing schools and bowing to union interests. I didn’t swear or threaten his physical safety, but not long before my Twitter termination, I pledged to do everything in my power to keep him from being reelected in November. He is, in my view, “unfit to be the ruler of a free people,” like the Declaration of Independence signatories told their tyrant king. 

I’ve always assumed I can say all of this, and more, about any elected official, under the Constitution. Which is why I was loath to consider a connection between my Tweets being flagged, and my speaking against Mr. Pritzker. 

Granted, I had nowhere near the following of other accounts in which the Biden administration apparently took interest. But “Emma Woodhouse” exceeded the follower counts of most Chicagoland news reporters and radio hosts. When average, passionate citizens gain influence in forums or among people that government would prefer are dominated by its own narratives, it’s not hard to imagine government taking steps to make sure those people’s words are suppressed. 

Twitter’s own Covid-19 misleading information policy gives all users reason to wonder whether they could suffer the same fate. Methods for reviewing violations include not only reports from fellow users and internal algorithms, but also “close coordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities, NGOs, & governments.” 

If Twitter trusts these entities – some of which pressured both Twitter and other social media companies to make sure certain views and data don’t get traction – then it’s reasonable to assume that the leaders who are supposed to be protecting my rights may have been key players in silencing my voice. Deterring dissension by stopping the squeakiest wheel from making a sound isn’t new.

Luckily for Twitter, they don’t have to tell me exactly which part of the Covid policy my Tweets allegedly breached, or whether a “trusted partner” flagged the Tweet. 

Lucky for those trusted partners too. 

Right now, no one can see my Tweets except me. I can’t retrieve the archive of posts, so when Twitter eventually deletes the account altogether, there will be no record of the 64,000 messages I sent into the public sphere.

If that’s what the company wanted, fine. It’s the risk I took in using the service of a capricious corporation whose understanding of democratic principles is different from mine.

If it’s what the government wanted, I have no words – except that to say I want mine back, where I put them, for all to see.

Author

  • Jessica Hockett has a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Virginia. Her 20-year career in education included working with schools and agencies across the U.S. to improve curriculum, instruction, and programs.


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