SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter suspended high-profile accounts associated with the alt-right movement, the same day the social media service said it would crack down on hate speech.
Among those suspended was Richard Spencer, who runs an alt-right think tank and had a verified account on Twitter.
The alt-right, a loosely organized group that espouses white nationalism, emerged as a counterpoint to mainstream conservatism and has flourished online. Spencer has said he wants blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Jews removed from the U.S.
Twitter on Tuesday removed Spencer's verified account, @RichardBSpencer, that of his think tank, the National Policy Institute @npiamerica, and his online magazine @radixjournal.
"This is corporate Stalinism," Spencer told The Daily Caller News Foundation. In a YouTube video, entitled Knight of the Long Knives, an apparent reference to the purge of Nazi leaders in 1934 to consolidate Adolf Hitler's power, Spencer said Twitter had engaged in a coordinated effort to wipe out alt-right Twitter.
"I am alive physically but digitally speaking there has been execution squads across the alt right," he said. "There is a great purge going on and they are purging people based on their views."
In a statement, Twitter said: "The Twitter Rules prohibit targeted abuse and harassment, and we will suspend accounts that violate this policy."
It declined to comment specifically on the suspensions, which included the accounts of Paul Town, Pax Dickinson, Ricky Vaughn and John Rivers.
Twitter was the platform of choice for the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump and the alt-right political movement that embraced him. The alt-right used social media to spread its cause of white supremacy, operating largely unchecked by social media giants Twitter and Facebook.
For years, Twitter billed itself as "the free speech wing of the free speech party." But as the social media service grew, that hands-off approach contributed to a dramatic rise in abuse, harassment and hate speech. As the company's user and revenue growth stagnated and public backlash increased, Twitter has in recent months begun to address complaints. After a bitterly divisive election, personal attacks and threats have only escalated.
White nationalist Matt Heimblach said the purge of alt-right accounts was politically motivated and accused Twitter of restricting free speech.
"There is a lot of concern over them trying to stop us, whether it's the establishment or whether it's these multinational corporations like Twitter or Google, but I really think it's too little too late. This political revolution that we are seeing has already begun," Heimblach, chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, said in an interview.
For every account that's banned, new accounts take its place, he said.
"The more the system tries to make the ideas of nationalism taboo, the more people are going to be interested and seek them out," he said. "It's helping us propagate our message every time they try very clumsily to shut us down."
As a private company, Twitter has no obligation to provide a forum for white nationalist views and "can do what it wants," said James Grimmelmann, a law professor who studies social networks at Cornell University.
"The case for saying Twitter ought to leave these accounts up is that free speech has purposes and those purposes would be served by having private companies be compelled to be more neutral platforms," Grimmelmann said. "This is not a constituency in imminent danger of having its viewpoints shut down by the powers that be in the United States. We just had an election that proved that there are really ample chances for people espousing strong right-wing racist views to get their views heard."
From Tuesday's suspensions, it's clear that Twitter is cracking down on accounts that it decides are in violation of the company's rules which ban hateful conduct. It has done a mass ban before. It removed 125,000 accounts linked to ISIL between mid-2015 and February 2016. But it's unclear if the crackdown will continue.
Heimblach said he received a warning from Twitter on Wednesday that some of his tweets violated the company's terms of service. "I had to remove several tweets but my account was not removed. That could change by the time this phone conversation is over," he said. "I have no illusion that my Twitter will be removed at some point."
Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told USA TODAY that the center had asked Twitter to remove more than 100 accounts of white supremacists who violated Twitter's terms of service. She also pointed to two alt-right accounts that had been verified by Twitter, Spencer's and Heimblach's.
Twitter says it verifies an account by giving it a blue check mark when "it is determined to be an account of public interest." Twitter launched the feature in 2009 after celebrities complained about people impersonating them on the social media service.
"We are encouraged by the decisions taken by Twitter. Now it is a matter of whether they are carried out," Beirich said. "Obviously, well-known white supremacists violate these terms of service and we are glad it appears that Twitter has chosen to step up on these issues."
Heimblach said he applied to have his account verified because he leads a political party registered with the Federal Communications Commission "advocating for the best interests of white Americans."
"I used that as a test to see if Twitter would be fair," he said.
Twitter has suspended alt-right accounts in the past but never so many at once.
In one of the highest-profile bans, Twitter removed the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology editor at the conservative news site Breitbart in July. He had engaged in a campaign of abuse in which hundreds of anonymous Twitter accounts bombarded Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones with racist and sexist taunts. Before banning Yiannopoulos, Twitter stripped him of his verified status.
Spencer said he supported Yiannopoulos and didn't think he should have been banned from Twitter. But, he said in his YouTube video, "Milo was engaging in something that could be called harassment."
"The fact is that I, and a number of other people who have just got banned, weren't even trolling," he said. "I was using Twitter just like I always use Twitter, to give people some updates and maybe to comment on a news story here and there."