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Two black lawmakers in the U.S. Congress sharply rebuked Twitter this week for serving as “an avenue to spread racism and bigotry” — and threatened regulation if the tech industry as a whole doesn’t identify and suspend the accounts behind those messages.
The calls for action came from Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Emanuel Cleaver in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sent on Tuesday. For them, the tipping point appears to be reports that Russian agents sought to stir political unrest ahead of the 2016 presidential election by stoking racial tensions, even running ads targeting groups like Black Lives Matter.
“As a result of the far-reaching nature of Twitter’s technology, we have seen an effort to undermine our democracy, create or fan flames of racial divisions, and spread hate speech that can ultimately cumulate into violence,” the two Democratic lawmakers wrote.
“We are disturbed by the ease in which foreign actors were able to manipulate your platform to advance anti-American sentiments that both exacerbates racial tension and ultimately threatens our democracy,” they continued. “More importantly, we are disappointed by the silence from you and others in your industry on ways to counter such blatant manipulation of this medium to build racial animosity, the consequences of which are quite literally life threatening.”
To be clear, those ads ran on Facebook, not Twitter. Some of the same Kremlin-tied actors had accounts on both platforms, but none of them had been registered advertisers on Twitter, the company said last week.
Nevertheless, Watson Coleman and Cleaver stressed that Twitter long has struggled to address racism and other hate speech spread on its site, sometimes by bots. And they said the rapid dissemination of “racist ideologies” had “contribut[ed] to the type of violence” surrounding the August neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, West Virginia earlier this year.
To that end, the lawmakers asked Twitter to share more information about their handling of “racially divisive communications” and the security procedures the company has in place to stop foreign entities in particular from spreading such messages.
Absent changes, the Democratic members warned, they could push more forcefully for regulation.
“If Twitter continues to prove unable or hesitant to grasp the seriousness of this threat and combat the radicalized climate that is being stimulated on your platforms, we, as members of Congress, will be left with little option but to demand for increased regulations and government oversight of this industry to address these problems.”
A spokeswoman for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.