Does 'Cunt' Break the Rules? Twitter Finds it Hard to Decide

A screenshot from Love You’re Cunt.
Screenshot: AltSHIFT

Earlier this month, the Twitter account for a streaming online porn platform tweeted about one of its new featured titles: Love Your Cunt. “Don’t let anyone tell you how your cunt should look or feel,” read the tweet from PinkLabel.TV, which specializes in content from independent adult filmmakers. “Your cunt isn’t on trial, your cunt is the fucking judge!” Within two minutes, PinkLabel.TV received an email from Twitter announcing that its account had been suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against “hateful conduct.”

The suspension was ironic, given that the advertised short film, produced by the queer porn production company altSHIFT, celebrates the acceptance of vulvas in all of their diverse forms. It begins with a monologue about genital variety and proceeds to a series of vulva closeups before transitioning into a sex scene. “We wanted to make something that said, ‘Love your cunt, love it for how it is, and everything about it,’” said Sam, the film’s director. Here Twitter, often accused of not doing nearly enough to protect marginalized groups (see: GamerGate), had found hate speech in an act of reclamation.

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The suspension email specified that Twitter prohibits users from threatening or harassing people on the basis of, among many other things, “sexual orientation,” “gender,” and “gender identity.” It seemed Twitter didn’t like PinkLabel.TV’s use of the word “cunt.”

This might seem like one small case of misguided social media censorship, but it taps into the complexities and challenges around online moderation, especially when it comes to reappropriated language. It highlights the ways in which moderation fumbles can promote self-censorship, even among the groups these policies purport to protect. Annnd it gives rise to a suddenly pressing query: Can I say “cunt” on Twitter?

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A Twitter spokesperson tells Jezebel that the PinkLabel.TV suspension, which lasted for 12 hours (essentially a half-day timeout), was a “mistake,” but declined to give specifics on why the mistake was made or how the tweet was initially flagged. The spokesperson, speaking on background, said the tweet might have been surfaced by a complaint from a Twitter user or internal flagging technology, which is designed to analyze multiple factors beyond just the use of a single word like “cunt.” (PinkLabel.TV’s status as an adult company did not influence the decision, says the spokesperson.) Final moderation decisions are made by human review. Moderators, much like with the flagging technology, are expected to take the broader context of a tweet into consideration rather than pull the trigger based on one word. But, again, a “mistake” was made.

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Twitter is in the midst of a high-profile debate over its moderation policies. Last week, the platform unveiled new guidelines one-year in the making meant to limit “dehumanizing” speech, but the policy was dramatically scaled back from the platform’s originally stated aims. This was partly due to worries that a more aggressive stance “might be too sweeping, potentially resulting in the removal of benign messages and in haphazard enforcement,” reported the New York Times. This is the see-saw of online moderation: doing too little or doing too much. Often, these policies are flimsy enough to allow for both to happen at the same time.

It is technically true that the word “cunt” is allowed on Twitter, according to the spokesperson. Indeed, a quick search delivers many such tweets, including one in which a man calls Megan Rapinoe “such a fucking cunt” for celebrating her World Cup win. It’s also true, though, as with PinkLabel.TV, that the word “cunt” can result in suspension, even when used without a whiff of hatred. Exactly when “cunt” flies is up to moderators’ interpretation. Exactly how those decisions are made, and how the tricky politics of reclamation are parsed, remains a mystery.

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“‘Cunt’ is on the borderline of being reclaimed,” said Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John’s University Law School specializing in law and technology. “There are people—and I am a huge proponent of the word ‘cunt,’ personally—who reclaim the word and want to use it in this positive way, and there are people who want to use it as the ultimate slur against women. That is a hard line to police for any space.” She sees this moderation mistake as reflective of a “moment in which we’re changing the meaning of a word and we’re trying to get it reflected online.”

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Similarly, Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University specializing in online ethics, says that moderating potentially reclamatory language is “extraordinary difficult,” but she argues that Twitter’s unwillingness to reveal the inner workings of its process is a problem. “There is no transparency in how it is that they enforce their rules, and why it is that certain things that seem absolutely egregious manage to not face any consequences for years,” says Phillips, giving the example of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Last year, Twitter caught fire for only suspending some of his privileges, while other major platforms, including YouTube and Facebook, banned him. That decision was initially defended by the company, but a month later, Twitter permanently banned Jones.

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“It’s very convenient, if you do not make clear what your rules are and how those rules are being enforced on your platform, you can describe anything as a ‘mistake,’” says Phillips. “They have this enormous power to decide in an ad hoc way what gets to be a ‘mistake’ and what isn’t, and what they have to answer to and what they don’t.”

This case makes painfully clear that—given both how much we depend on platforms like Twitter and the unnerving opacity of their policies—even a single moderation “mistake” can encourage self-censorship and influence speech online. Now, both altSHIFT and PinkLabel.TV are instead using the word “c*nt” to promote the film. Ultimately, it feels safer to love your “c*nt” than your “cunt.”

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