'Alt-right's' Spencer is back on Twitter. Is hate speech, too?

The social network still grapples with toxic tweets as it reinstates a leader of the "alt right," a collection of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
3 min read

America's most famous white nationalist has returned to Twitter. On a technicality.

Over the weekend, the social network reinstated the account of Richard Spencer, who advocates a separate white homeland for a "dispossessed" white race and calls for a "peaceful ethnic cleansing."

The account, which has more than 25,000 followers, reappeared on Saturday, along with a clip of Arnold Schwarzenegger from the "Terminator" movies. Spencer's tweet read: "I'm back." Spencer included in his title a frog emoji, a reference to the Pepe the Frog meme that has become the symbol of anti-Semitism and racism.

Twitter, which gave no reason for the original suspension, said in a statement it had reinstated Spencer's account after he designated it as his official account. The social network's rules prohibit someone from having more than one account for the same purpose.

The reinstatement of Spencer's account immediately drew backlash with critics suggesting Twitter was backsliding in its promise to fight hate speech. The Nov. 15 suspension, which came at the same time as a handful of accounts that targeted black and Jewish people were closed, was widely seen as a crackdown on harassment. In addition to Spencer, Twitter suspended the accounts of several high-profile users, including Paul Town, Pax Dickinson, Ricky Vaughn and John Rivers, who espouse white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideas.

The company also drew fire after an attack over the summer drove comedian Leslie Jones, who is African-American, from the social network when she was singled out for her race and looks.

"We do not know why Twitter allowed a hate-monger like Spencer back on its platform," said Jonathan Greenblatt, who runs the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL said it is aware of what Spencer stands for and "will be monitoring his Twitter activity closely."

Spencer claims he coined the term "alt-right," used to describe a fringe conservative movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and heads the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as "dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States."

He was caught in a recording using the phrase "hail victory," the English translation of the Nazi phrase "sieg heil," shortly after Trump's election. The recording showed listeners saluting in Nazi style, with their right arms extended.

Spencer didn't respond to a request for comment.

Analysts say the reinstatement of Spencer's account reflects the difficulty of policing hate speech on the internet, where many supporters of the so-called alt-right have begun retweeting other people's messages and using inoffensive slang to refer to minorities to avoid filters.

"They have shifted to talking less directly about other groups and more about the plight of whites," said Keegan Hankes, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. "What he's done so far looks like he and the alt-right Twitter accounts have seemed to work the system."

Since his reinstatement Saturday, Spencer has tweeted about President-elect Donald Trump's transition to the White House, dissed Trump's presidential opponent Hillary Clinton and other female politicians, and retweeted an article about Gab, a social network catering to the far-right.

He even tweeted about his time off the social network:

Kelley Heider, vice president of social media at SSPR, said the flip-flop is part of Twitter's ongoing identity crisis.

"They are continuing to struggle in supporting their original mission to uphold free speech, which is what makes it such an attractive platform to begin with," she said. "The problem continues to be where that free speech is misappropriated to cause real-world impact."