Twitter removed the blue "verification" check marks from a handful of prominent white nationalists and far-right conservatives and issued new guidelines after the uproar that followed its decision to verify the organizer of the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally that took place in August.
The check marks are a visual cue that the company gives to prominent accounts to help readers ensure they are authentic.
Jason Kessler, the organizer of the August Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that drew various factions of the new far right - white nationalists and supremacists, armed militias, and a former leader of Klu Klux Klan - before devolving into violence that left one counter-protester dead, was among those who said the blue check mark was taken away from his account Wednesday. Others who said they lost their verified status included the white nationalist Richard Spencer, far-right activists Laura Loomer and James Allsup, and Tommy Robinson, the host of a show on the fringe conservative site the Rebel TV. Tim Gionet, an alt-right figurehead who went by the name Baked Alaska, was suspended from the service.
The move marks the latest skirmish in a debate over speech that has exploded over the past couple years in both online forums like Twitter and those in the real world, like college campuses and city squares, as extremist figures with racially motivated views have increasingly moved into public view. And it comes as the publicly traded company faces increased pressure to weed out the hateful speech, images and threats that have blossomed on the service in recent years.
Those who had their authentication removed quickly complained - on Twitter, as they are still free to tweet and use the service regularly - that the move was an act of censorship.
"Being pro free speech isn't selective," wrote Loomer. "It means you support everyone's speech, even if you don't like them."
In a phone interview, Spencer said he was worried the move would lead to people like him being banned from Twitter.
"And it is a kind of depersoning of someone," he said, of being unverified.
The social media site said it was in the process of eliminating the verification status of accounts that do not adhere to a new set of guidelines it issued on Wednesday. These include accounts that use misleading names or identities on Twitter, promote hate or violence against other people based on race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion and gender - or support organizations and individuals that promote these messages - harass others, threaten violence or distribute gruesome imagery.
And they also help promote the accounts, lending them a sort of semi-official imprimatur from the company. But Twitter said that they were never meant to be an endorsement.
"We gave verified accounts visual prominence on the service which deepened this perception," it wrote. "We should have addressed this earlier but did not prioritize the work as we should have."
As a private company Twitter has no legal free speech obligations to those who use its service. It noted in its new guidelines that it "reserves the right to remove verification at any time without notice."
The decision comes about a week after an uproar that was set off when Twitter gave a verification badge to Kessler. Twitter suspended its verification process after the outcry, said Wednesday it was continuing to draft a new policy.
The company's public image has also suffered by the recent disclosure that Russian operatives used hundreds of fake accounts on the service - some with significant levels of influence and tens of thousands of followers - as part of what officials have described as a campaign to sow division in the United States before the 2016 election by gaming the social media platforms, their users and their algorithms.
Kessler had previously used Twitter to call Heather Heyer, who was killed at the rally by a man described as a Nazi sympathizer, a "fat, disgusting Communist," whose death "was payback time," and he was arrested last month after he allegedly shared the home address of an anti-racist activist online.
Twitter's decision to ban Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing writer and speaker who once led a karaoke rendition of "America the beautiful" in front of a crowd of people doing Nazi salutes, in 2016 drew the ire of some conservatives at the time.
Critics on the left have long contended that Twitter's lenience with extremist accounts gives them the prominence and platform to help spread their messages.
Jack Dorsey, the company's chief executive, said last week that it realized it needed to overhaul the verification process "some time ago."
© The Washington Post 2017