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Japan Twitter confusion mounts as hate tweets left online while other accounts frozen

Protesters demonstrate against discriminatory tweets in front of Twitter Japan headquarters in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, on Sept. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

Twitter users are increasingly crying foul over the service's opaque content management rules, with critics pointing out that discriminatory tweets are left to circulate online unmolested, even as some users find their accounts frozen without explanation.

    Twitter Inc.'s decisions on what is OK to tweet and what is not seem to be made in a black box, and with the service now so ubiquitous it has been called a part of the "information infrastructure," this inscrutability is causing rumors to swirl in Japan that the company has caved to government pressure.

    On Sept. 8, about 100 people joined a rally organized by an anti-hate speech group in front of Twitter Japan's headquarters in Tokyo's Chuo Ward to demand the service "stop letting discriminatory tweets circulate freely."

    San Francisco-based Twitter has more than 300 million users worldwide. In Japan, Twitter has taken on certain public utility aspects as local governments even use the service to get disaster and other vital information to residents. However, Twitter also has anonymous users, and it is not hard to find tweeters or tweets fomenting hatred and discrimination.

    Twitter Inc. forbids hate speech or copyright violations in user posts. If a user violates these rules repeatedly, their account can be frozen, among other measures. The fact is, however, that there are simply too many tweets for the company to keep pace with.

    Meanwhile, there is smoldering frustration over some accounts being frozen with no explanation at all from the company.

    Tamotsu Sugano, a writer who has investigated the favoritism scandal over a sweetheart government land deal for nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, had his account suddenly suspended on Sept. 19. Sugano asked Twitter for an explanation, and was told that he had "violated rules concerning harassment of specific individuals." However, the company did not provide any specific examples or any other details.

    Sugano did tweet phrases disparaging certain people, "but all I did was post things to fight back against politicians and celebrities saying and doing discriminatory things," the writer said. "I can't accept this."

    Sugano had more than 60,000 followers when his account was shut down, so there was a serious uproar when he suddenly disappeared from the service. However, when approached for comment, all Twitter Japan would say was, "We cannot answer questions regarding specific cases."

    "Sugano did use rude language in his posts ... but considering Twitter currently lets discriminatory tweets stay online, freezing his account is questionable," said journalist Shoko Egawa. "Not knowing what tweets violate the rules causes free speech to wither, and creates a hotbed for conspiracy theories. At the very least, Twitter should explain its reasons to Sugano."

    Meanwhile, fellow journalist Daisuke Tsuda pointed out that it's possible Twitter's checking system hasn't been able to keep up with the service's quick growth.

    "It seems like Twitter is freezing accounts by uniformly applying the rules, but I wonder if it is carefully scrutinizing the account content," he said. "It's possible that tweets that are not a problem if taken in context are getting caught up in the system. In the United States, judgment on whether a company should freeze accounts is beginning to be handled by human rights organizations and specialists. It would be good to learn from that example," he concluded.

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