Twitter apologized last week for overlooking threats sent to Rochelle Ritchie, a Black Independent who previously reported threatening messages from Cesar Sayoc Jr., the suspect arrested Friday after bombs were sent to prominent opposers of President Donald Trump.
After the news broke, Ritchie uploaded screenshots of the messages sent from @hardrock2016 along with an e-mail from Twitter excusing the behavior.
“Hey @Twitter remember when I reported the guy who was making threats towards me after my appearance on @FoxNews,” the former reporter wrote. “You guys sent back a bs response about how you didn’t find it that serious. Well guess what it’s the guy who has been sending #bombs to high profile politicians!!!!”
Ritchie spoke with EBONY.com about her interaction with Sayoc, Twitter’s apology and how she believes the platform can stop abusive behavior.
Can you describe what a Democrat strategist does for those who may not know?
A Democrat strategist is just someone who has more of a left-leaning view.
Typically, on Fox News, they tend to describe me that way, but I’m not a registered Democrat. I’m actually a registered Independent. They usually label me that way because I work for House Democrats.
Lately [the network] has been changing my title to political analyst or former press secretary for House Democrats.
Do you usually report abusive or threatening messages to Twitter? If not, why did you alert them to the tweets you received from Sayoc?
I normally do not report anybody. I’m used to getting racial slurs or comments like that when I go on conservative news outlets and I give a more left-leaning opinion about something. Sayoc’s [tweets] stood out to me because they were more threatening in nature. I usually let the derogatory name-calling roll off my back, but with him, I said, “This is taking it a little bit too far.”
It’s not that I was worried that he would really harm me. I was just angry that someone would feel that [he or she] could send me [messages] like that and get away with it.
I reported it to Twitter in hopes that his page would be suspended indefinitely and that he would be taught a lesson about not making death threats to people online.
What happened after you reported him to the social media platform?
I submitted it, and several minutes later, I received a message back from Twitter saying that they did not find the language abusive. I was like, “OK, whatever,” because I was planning on going out of the country.
I left for my trip to Morocco on Oct. 14, and this incident was three days prior, so I just [brushed it off].
When I got back from vacation, there were all these bomb scares. I was at work on Friday when I received messages from a [few] people on Twitter saying, “Oh my gosh, the guy that wrote you all those nasty messages is the bombing suspect.”
I thought, “What, are you kidding me?”
I unblocked him to see if the [suspect] was the same person and it was.
A tale of two Twitters. Threats against @RochelleRitchie from bombing suspect only were taken seriously by Twitter after he was taken into custody. This is what Twitter sent her two weeks ago and what they sent her tonight. https://t.co/fcDOrs30nu @jack pic.twitter.com/HiR6pXH59w
— Donie O'Sullivan (@donie) October 27, 2018
I was shocked, and I was at work wondering what I should do. I live in New York City, and many of these packages were coming up to the city in places not too far from where I live. I was angry about him but also the fact that I had reported him to Twitter before and they only took seven minutes to determine if his threats were credible.
It indicated to me that they should’ve taken it more seriously because this guy was very dangerous. It seems that if Sayoc were threatening to shoot up a school or kill police officers, then it would be taking more seriously. Since I’m one individual it wasn’t.
Twitter stated that the first message you received was in error. Do you believe that?
No. They’re covering themselves. The second message said it shouldn’t have been sent that it was an error. The third message, which they posted on their Twitter safety account, was an apology and an admission that they made a mistake because the tweet that I received was abusive in nature. They used my name in it, but they didn’t @RochelleRitchie. It was never really a direct apology to me.
An update. We made a mistake when Rochelle Ritchie first alerted us to the threat made against her. The Tweet clearly violated our rules and should have been removed. We are deeply sorry for that error.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) October 27, 2018
Do you think there is a way Twitter can solve the problem of abuse on its platform?
If someone sends a life-threatening message on Twitter, their account should be suspended, and they should be reported to police. I know that may take a lot of work, but currently, we cannot risk ignoring those types of threats because of what it has led to.
The fact that you have websites such as GAB.com, [a social media platform favored by far-right extremists], that allow for people including Robert Bowers, [the suspect in Pittsburgh synagogue massacre], to share this sort of hate and rhetoric that means they support it.
If Twitter does not support hate speech or hate crimes or racism or bigotry in any kind of way, then they will immediately remove those accounts and report those people to the police.
I just posted to my account that it is time for members of Congress to put forth legislation that recognizes these White nationalist organizations as terrorist enterprises. It is not enough to sit here and say, “Oh, I’m going to charge you with a hate crime.” Before the hate speech becomes a hate crime, these people should be locked up in a jail.
How do you feel about the counter-argument of free speech?
You are entitled to free speech, but you are not excluded from the consequences of that speech. If you use vulgar language or racist rhetoric, you will be held accountable for it. You can go out here and say whatever you want but know that comes with repercussions depending on how volatile what you say is.
You cannot tell someone, “I’m going to shoot you in the head,” or “Be careful when you leave your home and make sure to hug your loved ones.” That’s not OK. That is not free speech, that is hate speech.
That is a threat and that should not be protected. It is not protected because people are charged with crimes for that stuff.
Twitter is considering killing the ‘Like’ button to promote healthier debate.
That’s stupid. That is not the problem. What needs to be taken away is people’s access to social media that are going to use it in a way to radicalize people in this country, to spew hate, racism and bigotry.
What I would like them to do is give me the ability to delete comments off my page. I should be able to delete comments because even if I block someone, other people can still see the message.
I want to be able to delete and block. I shouldn’t have to delete my tweet because a jerk wanted to come and say racist comments. Then other people see me being called the N-word or B-word and they become upset, which leads to a trickle-down effect.
Is Twitter responsible for encouraging people to participate in hate speech?
Absolutely. It makes no sense. If I had a website—granted I would want it to be popular and for people to use it—I would have some responsibility. If I’m the CEO of a company, if I don’t stand for it then it’s not going to stand at my company either. There are going to be certain things that you cannot do simply because I do not believe in that.
If I notice that these people are using [my platform] to recruit, why would I allow that? This Gab.com website has blood on their hands with what happened at the synagogue. They allowed it to fester and build up without reporting it to authorities. Now, we have 11 innocent people who are dead.
The same thing happened with Dylann Roof, a White supremacist and convicted mass murderer. He had a website where he wrote a manifesto about what he was going to do in Charleston, South Carolina [in June 2015].
This ‘see something, say something’ motto only applies if you’re on the New York City subway, catching a flight or if you’re Black in America doing normal things like having a BBQ. Then people want to call the police or shoot you in the back when they’re entering your apartment.
I saw something. I said something and still, nothing happened. I’m just one Black woman without a badge with no political title to my name so I’m a nobody to them.
Even with Sayoc, people are saying, “Well, why didn’t you go to the police?” I don’t even think if I went to authorities anything would even happen because this man already had a record of making bomb threats and he was still walking the streets.
I thought at least reporting it to Twitter it would get his page shut down and it didn’t. They didn’t find his behavior to be abusive. What is abusive? When a bomb ends up in my mailbox?
How does hate speech on Twitter function in today’s climate?
It’s contributing to the divisive rhetoric that we’re seeing. The president is 99 percent to blame and the 1 percent is social media and them not being responsible with what they allow.
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Christina Santi is a news and culture writer for EBONY.com. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she considers herself a well-read, not so traditional feminist with a heavy interest in music, fashion and pop culture. Christina currently lives in New York City, where she refers to her Cuban & Jamaican descent often while writing about her experiences as a first-generation Afro-Latinx in America. She also devotes time writing personalized reading material for her tutees and turning ideas into words for streetwear brand, PUER By Noel Bronson.