Suspended From Twitter... Radio Silence

Why I'm not a Russian bot (or whatever Twitter thinks I am)

A few days after sending out my last post, I was suspended from Twitter. It’s been one full week since, and I have yet to receive any information about why I was suspended.

I want to preface this by saying that this isn’t meant to be a melodramatic screed about authoritarian tech censorship. I’m just an average person, with just 300 or so followers. My last article released here was well received, and reached a larger audience than I thought possible— if you are a new subscriber welcome.

Twitter is the main platform on which I promoted my article. Naturally, it is frustrating to be banned shortly after the release. While the topic of Alexey Navalny and nationalism is controversial, at the end of the day I am a nobody and I don’t think I was singled out for censorship. A little more on that later, first I’ll give a quick recap of the opaque and frustrating appeal process.

Late last Monday night, March 1st, I opened the Twitter app on my phone. I scrolled for a second, then my likes started bouncing back. Then my feed didn’t load new tweets. Then I went to my profile and saw my following and followers both at zero. I asked my girlfriend Sam to check if she saw what I was seeing. Sure enough, my account @LavinskiDenis was suspended.

I checked my email for any information. Hoping to see even an automated email letting me know I was suspended— nothing. At the suggestion of a friend, I went to Twitter Support and immediately appealed my suspension. She is also a Russian-American, had been through a similar ordeal recently. Here is what she said about the appeal process:

As for the appeal process, I got what appeared to be an automated reply shortly after I submitted the form that explained that I got suspended for "spam and platform manipulation" because it appeared that I had been "operating multiple accounts with similar use cases." 

Shortly after I submitted my appeal form, I got a similar automated response but mine was even more vague and uninformative. This is the only communication I have received from Twitter over this entire time. As you’ll see, it doesn’t even give a suggestion of the reason I was banned beyond a vague gesture to the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service.

The use of the word “appeal” here begs a comparison with Franz Kafka’s The Trial. You receive notification that you’ve been charged with a crime. What crime you are charged with, and under what law you are charged, you don’t know and cannot find out. Your only recourse is to turn towards a faceless bureaucracy. In the absence of a charge, you don’t even know on what grounds you’re meant to defend yourself. So you try to give a broad accounting of yourself. You silently hope some nameless official takes a look at your case, and grants you clemency. In short, you grovel.

Here’s an excerpt of an email I’ve written to Twitter Support since submitting my appeal (the full version is included at the end of this article):

There is not even a suggestion from Twitter’s side which Twitter Rule or Term of Service was broken and in what way. I would like to at least be pointed in the direction where Twitter believes I was in violation of its rules. 

The account @LavinskiDenis is my primary twitter account and only active account. It uses my real location/residence (Los Angeles), my full legal name, my actual birthday (June 10th, 1995) and a profile picture of the real human person that I am, Denis Lavinski. The bio features my real biographical information: I’m Russian-American, graduated from King’s College London in 2016, and The website linked in my bio is to my personal website that features my art and photography: dlavinski.com.

I don’t know what else I could say under the circumstances. It is hard not to get frustrated when you’re barred from using platforms that have monopolized spaces for public discussion.

There are much smarter and more creative people than myself working on alternative social media platforms. One of my favorite’s that I am an active user of is are.na. So far none of these platforms have the reach and broad user base present on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In the absence of any alternative platforms, we all have to deal with our oligarchic Silicon Valley overlords. I have half a mind to never use the platform again, but I really do value Twitter’s service.

The platform has allowed with me to connect with some very interesting people. Like so many people around the world, I spent the bulk of the last year cooped up in a one bedroom apartment. I lost my job and I wasn’t jetting off to Tulum to escape COVID restrictions. So I sat at home, read, caught up on prestige TV I’d been meaning to see for years, and spent time with my girlfriend and my cat in our little home. Twitter was one of my few connections to the outside world beyond my home, my immediate family, and a few close friends.

As far as the reasons I was suspended I can’t know for sure. I don’t even know if a real human person had a hand in the whole process at any point. Having read through Twitters Rules, I do know I wasn’t in gross violation of any of Rules. I am a real person. I don’t run a network of fake accounts that coordinate to sow chaos in our democracy. I don’t have any ties to the Russian government or any government. Colloquially speaking, I’m not “a Russian bot.” I have joked a few times about being on the “front-lines” of the disinformation war. That was always tongue in cheek, meant to underscore how silly the whole disinformation discourse has gotten.

I may have been reported by someone unhappy with my article, or for simply bringing up the topic of Navalny’s nationalism— but I don’t have any evidence of that beyond the coincidence in timing. I made an effort to be fair and informative, if not completely impartial, in writing the article. Even if I was reported, the reason I was suspended comes down to the blunt and imprecise tools available to large tech companies charged with moderation.

Barring a truly massive investment in the creation of a fully-transparent, well-regulated, and objective moderation and arbitration system, we’re stuck with half-measures. Instead of just having “Twitter Jail” we could one day have Twitter Court, Twitter Lawyers, Twitter Judges, Twitter Subpoenas, Twitter Juries etc. etc. A system like that would be a huge burden of social media companies bottom line, if it had to be self-funded. Who knows if it would even improve the user’s experience or any of our lives— let alone save democracy.

In response to the rise of Donald Trump, and the ensuing Russiagate hysteria, we’ve seen the rise of “disinformation experts” whose work is guided by vague dictates like “ensuring platform integrity.” Spurred by the demands of elites around the world anxious about maintaining their grip on power, tech companies have resorted to relying on a mix of: automated moderation; ad hoc review of appeals, presumably by some real person in some office park somewhere; and the “expert analysis” of officially sanctioned think-tanks and non-profits.

Organizations claiming to be fighting online disinformation and preserving democracy are a dime a dozen these days. For some great examples, take a look at Twitter’s official partners working on “Civic Integrity” . One that stands out is the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. There are dozens if not hundreds of these orgs today. Some may be doing good work. People working in them may well be writing white papers with great ideas that would meaningfully improve social media platforms and are being unfairly overlooked by tech companies. Companies that are ultimately more concerned with avoiding regulation and increasing ad revenue.

This is all part of a coherent trend across different sectors of society: in the halls of political power, in commerce, and in media. Good examples are: the scare around “Russian disinformation” as if it is some never before seen super-weapon only accessible to the Russian government; the recent GameStop and r/WallStreetBets fiasco; and UCLA professor Sarah T. Roberts’ memorable twitter thread denouncing Substack as a danger to the fabric of society.

It is no surprise that Roberts, an expert in “commercial content moderation”, is a co-founder of something called the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at UCLA. The org goes by the indecipherable acronym C2i2, and it is one of the many anti disinformation orgs described above. They might be doing some good work, for instance the other co-founder’s book tackles algorithmic racism. However, Robert’s viral twitter thread is a classic example of anxiety over the loss of traditional forms of elite gate-keeping in an era of mass information technology.

These organizations all claim to be fighting manipulative and malicious use of information, but fundamentally they are designed to counter the threat posed by unconstrained information exchange. The problem is that the idealized democratic forum they are trying to “preserve” has never existed. A forum where information is freely exchanged by the masses, available to everyone equally, and individuals make completely independent free-willed democratic choices has never existed outside the realms of a thought experiment. So we’re left with a system that nobody is happy with. It seems biased, both to the left and the right. Nearly everyone thinks tech companies are doing too much, too little, or a little of both.

As an independent minded Russian-American, the Trump Era was a strain on my personal sanity. Vladimir Putin and the vaguely defined “Russians” were said to be behind a grave attack on democracy. Their weapon of choice— our very own precious Internet. Predictably, the Russiagate hysteria swung back around and was used to attack the left like every intelligent person knew it was bound to do.

My preferred 2020 presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, was accused of being Putin’s favorite candidate by major newspapers and his fellow candidates for the Democratic Nomination. At a crucial moment in the Democratic Primary season, Sanders was said to be just as much a favorite of Putin’s as Donald Trump. This too is part of a broader trend. Problems that are in fact endemic to our own society are blamed wholly, or overwhelming, on malicious actors in foreign countries like Russia and China.

In the final months of the 2020 election, Alex Gibney released a 4-hour documentary called Agents of Chaos. The film was just another addition to the long list of scare-mongering documents decrying the unique villainy of Putin’s Russia in our time. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks interviewed Gibney ahead of the film’s release. Some memorable words from Uygur stuck with me, “the Russian’s are trying to interfere with our stories… create chaos so we can’t trust our stories anymore.” Uygur sounds like a shivering toddler scared of his bedtime story.

The full soliloquy isn’t much better, but it’s a useful illustration of the mindset underlying all of the concern over online disinformation orchestrated by “the Russians”:

Stories are what run everything in our world... stories are also what help decide whether people are going to trust an election or not, the American Idea, the American Principles, and whether we have faith in the system… and it seems like the Russian’s are trying to interfere with our stories, if you will, and create chaos so we can’t trust the stories anymore – at least the positive ones. So, going forward, since they’ve kind of laid out the blueprint here, what would stop any foreign government (The Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis etc.) from using America as basically a battlefield for propaganda to mess with our belief and faith in the system.

“The Russians” didn’t invent lying. They didn’t invent propaganda, nor did they perfect propaganda. They didn’t rob Americans of their belief in the American Idea. If any American has lost faith in the American Idea they would be better off seeking answers in their hometown or in Washington, than in Moscow or some nondescript office park in St. Petersburg.

The issue goes deeper. “The Russians” did not turn the internet into a battlefield. The internet has always been a battlefield, and it was created as an information weapon right here at home in the US of A. In his book on the subject, Surveillance Valley, writer Yasha Levine sums it up really well:

The Internet came out of a 1960’s [US] military project to develop an information weapon. It was born out of a need to quickly communicate, process data, and control a chaotic world. Today, the network is more than a weapon; it is also a field of battle, a place where vital military and intelligence operations take place. Geopolitical struggle has moved online, and Internet Freedom is a weapon in that fight. (p.267-268)

If you see the Internet for what it is, the current landscape makes sense. The Internet wasn’t designed to usher in universal enlightenment, world peace, and direct democracy. The PR departments at Google and facebook might want you to think so. The information weapon that was designed by the United States is in the hands of every person in the world with access to a cell phone signal or ability to afford an internet connection.

Naturally the people responsible for the creation of the Internet would be anxious to not let it get out of control. So Silicon Valley hires vetted experts and “objective” arbiters. These organizations are far from impartial. Crucially, they are trusted by the governments that would have the most power to regulate the tech companies. Apart from attracting users, hoovering up our data, and increasing ad revenue; avoiding regulation seems to be top of the list of priorities for social media companies.

The tools designed to moderate the online community are deeply flawed. Naturally, innocent bystanders are bound to get caught up in this clunky machinery every once in a while. When the average person uses Twitter, or any of these platforms, they don’t expect to be thrust into a battlefield. One day, maybe some creative person might be able to design a better, freer and more transparent platform that we’ll all flock to. A place where people can be silly, and people can be serious, and nobody get’s hurt, and nobody loses their job, and democracy doesn’t go to die etc.

In the meantime, I’ll just wait patiently for a response from Twitter. Hopefully, I’ll be unsuspended soon. At best, the process seems to take a couple weeks. At worst, who knows.

I am working on writing a few more articles. I probably have one more release about Alexey Navalny in me, but I am also working on something a little closer to home (in Los Angeles, California). I’ve had my fill reading about the far-right, at least for the time being.

Below is a copy of an email to Twitter Support that I wrote. I don’t know what use posting @jack or @TwitterSupport could do. Regardless of its real impact, the support shown when I got suspended was really appreciated. Here’s a silly one that brought a smile to my face from Sam:


Hello Twitter, 

Took the time to read through the Twitter Rules today. At the time my account was suspended I don’t believe I was in violation of any of Twitter’s Rules. 

However, I neither received notice prior to suspension (of a tweet or action that was in violation), nor have I received any explanation or further details of what incited my suspension after the fact. Not even an email to the email address associated with my account stating that my account has been suspended. All I have received is the automated email following my appeal submission, it contained nothing but a request that I confirm that I still have access to the email address my account is registered under.

There is not even a suggestion from Twitter’s side which Twitter Rule or Term of Service was broken and in what way. I would like to at least be pointed in the direction where Twitter believes I was in violation of its rules. 

The account @LavinskiDenis is my primary twitter account and only active account. It uses my real location/residence (Los Angeles), my full legal name, my actual birthday (June 10th, 1995) and a profile picture of the real human person that I am, Denis Lavinski. The bio features my real biographical information: I’m Russian-American, graduated from King’s College London in 2016, and The website linked in my bio is to my personal website that features my art and photography: dlavinski.com.

I use the account to comment on current events and follow the news. Recently, I have used it to promote my blog/newsletter on substack: https://denislavinski.substack.com

My first two releases concerned Alexey Navalny, and past associations with figures on Russia’s far-right. A few days after a post documenting these associations, I was unceremoniously suspended without notice or explanation. 

In lieu of receiving any information from Twitter, I thought I would give a short accounting of myself via email. 

Best,

Denis Lavinski


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P.S. I mentioned the alternative social media site Are.na (are.na). I am a huge fan of the concept and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a new platform. The platform consists of channels. Channels can feature images, text, links, or pdf files, and some really interesting and creative people have found some great ways to utilize the platform. My favorite account is design researcher Evan Collins (his channel Global Village Coffeehouse is a standout.)

Among other channels I run a channel called, Proof of Collusion. It’s a collection of all the trashy and cringe aesthetic creations related to the Trump-Russia saga. Mueller Pee Tape Votive Candles, Faux Cyrillic, and dumb Daily Beast graphics. It is open to contributors, just drag and drop if you’ve got any gems to share.