When Eoin Lenihan published “It’s Not Your Imagination: The Journalists Writing About Antifa Are Often Their Cheerleaders” in Quillette, he had no expectation that he would be banned from Twitter. There was no way he could know that the journalists he identified as probably pro-Antifa would reach out to his other outlets, and ask them to pull Lenihan’s work as well. As of this writing, Lenihan’s account is suspended on Twitter, and his video at Al Jazeera News on a completely unrelated topic has been pulled down and is pending review.
Writing for Quillette, an open-minded publication interested in big, controversial ideas, can be a danger, as I know full well. But Twitter’s trigger happy bans and suspensions are indicative of a larger problem than simply the risks that are always present in speaking one’s mind. Twitter has no idea what it’s doing, and social media at large, which has replaced and in many ways and created so much of the arena for public discourse, is desperate to reign that public in.
In 2018, before a hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as reported by David Marcus at The Federalist, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey revealed that “his company’s policies had in fact resulted in bias against conservatives.” While at the time Dorsey claimed that this was unintentional— “the result of a faulty algorithm no longer in place”—the truth is that over a year and a half since that hearing, the company has continued to not have any clear, discernible standard as to what should be banned and why.
In Lenihan’s case, the rationale for banning is rather convoluted. Bear with me: he used to have a parody account, @progdadtv, much like Titania McGrath’s, and lauded by Joe Rogan, that skewered progressive leftist politics by way of posing as, well, an ultra progressive dad. This account was banned in August 2018 when he said something untoward about one of his detractors, a white supremacist called Jason Jones, aka @lucidhurricanex (now suspended himself), who then reported the account, because Twitter cares about white supremacists’ feelings, too.
After Lenihan posted a thread revealing his exploration of potential overlaps between leftist journalists who cover Antifa and Antifa activists themselves, his account was targeted by Antifa activists, such as @antifashgordon. The revelation, presumably, that Lenihan’s current handle had remained active while his former @progdadtv handle had been silenced was the reason that @eoinlenihan was suspended.
The latter handle, however, was the first one created, which means that, because it wasn’t created as a work around to the previous ban, Lenihan should have a shot at an account reinstatement. To recap: poking white supremacists will get a parody account banned, and pointing out what may be collusion between journalists and the subjects they cover can also get you banned.
We reached out the Lenihan for his thoughts on the ban, and what he was really after in exposing the connection between journalists and Antifa.
TPM: What was your impulse to start research into this story?
EL: I have been involved in researching online extremism since 2016. I am interested in both the far left and the far right but I decided to study Antifa after I did a round table talk on extremism with several of Germany’s leading extremism experts in October of 2018. At that conference, several individuals bemoaned the lack of evidence on far left extremism and so I thought I would look into it. This work on journalists was completely accidental. Our work was to create a classification of Antifa accounts on Twitter much like other extremism experts have done for ISIS and the far right. What we never expected was to see so many Twitter verified journalists appear in our subset of the most connected Antifa accounts on Twitter. It singled them out for manual inspection.
TPM: It seems your point was mostly about journalistic integrity. Do you feel like that’s an issue across the board?
EL: That assumption is correct. I think in the post-Brexit and post-Trump era, public faith in the media is at an all time low. Too many news outlets left and right have become hyper-partisan and are contributing to the increased polarisation of people in the US and in Europe. This is dangerous. I would be horrified to find out that certain journalists and publications were leveraging contacts in the far right to spread their ideals and narratives to an unsuspecting public. The same is true of our findings. It is now clear that certain journalists and prominent publications have working relationships with Antifa to promote their ideals and downplay their illegal activities. That is dangerous.
TPM: There’s been a huge push, by the progressive left, for people who have a platform to be more activist, to infuse their activism into every aspect of their work. Comics, artists, writers, have all taken up the charge, and party lines are being toed all over the place. Is the problem here that you feel that journalists have not been transparent in their views?
EL: This is a very interesting question. The journalist—Elizabeth King—who was banned for abusing me, who is close with Jason Wilson of “The Guardian” and who appeared on anarchist podcast “It’s Going Down News” with the SPLC’s Michael Hayden recently wrote a piece on exactly this: how journalists should cover the far right from an activist perspective.
It is an Antifa guide to reporting riddled with Antifa talking points and ideology. For example, when covering the far right, King makes little difference between the police and white supremacists and encourages journalists to seek out local Antifa individuals who have antagonistic relationships with the police for comment on any reporting involving the police.
King writes that “journalists covering the far right will inevitably run into the relationship between the police and the far right. The two are not necessarily distinct entities, but journalists often treat the police as neutral toward or even hostile to fascist groups, when the reality is often quite the opposite…When quoting police, it’s essential to reach out to those who have a contentious relationship with them, as opposed to taking the police for their word. Examples of who to reach out to include: local antifascist organizations, anti-fascist and anti-racist protesters at rallies, local community organizations who focus on racial, immigrant, gender, and sexuality justice.“
Our research, including our analysis of the bodies of work of those verified journalists who showed up in our highly connected subset seems to indicate that this practice—activist journalism—is already deeply rooted. It seems King is just formalizing it in print.
Why is Twitter taking its cues from journalists who Lenihan has shown to be connected to violent Antifa activists, and how could they not see past the rouse of the attacks against Lenihan being purported to be for violating his previous suspension? Twitter’s rules are so vague and unwieldy, precisely because it is an area where every single misstep runs the risk of being a free speech violation or direct misapplication, that those who apply them are unable to suss out when they are being played by complainers seeking only to silence their detractors.