As we reported several days ago, the Twitter accounts of a small group of conservative activists in Austin, including Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, were abruptly suspended on July 18. Today they were restored, and one of those affected explained what happened.
In a post on the conservative commentary site AgendaWise, whose writers also had their accounts suspended, blogger Weston Hicks confirmed rumors making their way around the Capitol that it all started with Daniel Greer, the former Empower Texans employee who recently launched AgendaWise and shares office space with Sullivan's group.
Earlier this month, Hicks wrote, Greer registered Twitter accounts that he correctly surmised NPR intended to acquire for its nascent StateImpact project, which provides in-depth coverage of state government in places like Pennsylvania and Indiana and Ohio. The project, which employs former Texas Tribune staffers Elise Hu and Matt Stiles, will soon expand to Texas in partnership with Austin's public radio station, KUT (a Texas Tribune content partner). The standard style for StateImpact's local Twitter handles is @StateImpact followed by the abbreviated name of the state — say, @StateImpactPA. Greer scooped up handles for states where the project was not yet in operation, such as @StateImpactME for Maine.
Twitter's rules prohibit, among other things, "username squatting," which includes "creating accounts for the purpose of preventing others from using those account names." That alone — ignoring, for example, other rules that prohibit creating "serial accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes" — would seem to make a strong case that his actions violated Twitter’s terms of service.
Greer insists he had plans to put the accounts to use. “We were going to be tracking policy in the states,” he says, “tracking media coverage of political events, stuff we obviously do here [in Texas].” Of course, up until this point, they’ve been doing that stuff under the name AgendaWise, not StateImpact.
Greer said that after he registered the accounts early in the month, a representative of Twitter contacted him and asked him to explain his intentions. Everything seemed fine, Greer recalled, and for the next couple of weeks he owned the handles without incident. So it was a surprise when Twitter suddenly cut off accounts tied to the shared office of Empower Texans and AgendaWise. “We still don’t really have clarity on what happened,” Greer said.
Repeated attempts this week to get Twitter to explain its rationale for the suspensions were unsuccessful. “We do not comment on individual accounts for privacy reasons,” Twitter spokeswoman Kristen Hawley told the Tribune. It is not known whether a complaint was lodged against Greer and the others — or who might have lodged it. “We’re not saying that NPR is necessarily the group that has raised a claim about this,” Greer said.
News of the suspension was reported this week by conservative national media figures, including Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report and Erick Erickson of RedState.com, who took up the cause. “It was very flattering — humbling, to be honest,” Sullivan said.
While Sullivan's account and those of his fellow conservatives are active again, the StateImpact accounts remain suspended. Not that Greer is deterred: “We’re going to be tracking StateImpact in every state,” he said. “We think it’s a ploy to shift the policy discussion left.” His evidence for that claim is funding for NPR’s project from George Soros, a billionaire known for backing liberal groups.
In his blog post, Hicks writes that part of the mission of AgendaWise includes opposing people like Soros "who use government to become richer, more powerful, and more firmly entrenched."
"We fight with websites and email lists and Twitter handles," he writes.
(Full disclosure: The Texas Tribune is a frequent target of AgendaWise’s as well, for similar reasons. Soros’ Open Society Institute provided $150,000 to the Tribune at the start of the 82nd Legislative Session to fund the transcription, for public consumption, of House and Senate floor proceedings. And, indeed, Greer owns the web address thetexastribune.org. “I’ve got a bad habit of buying up domain names,” he said. “I could pull a list of those things. It would be two or three or four spreadsheets with multiple hundreds of cells long.”)
Editor's Note: This story has been changed to better reflect Greer's account of the timeline of his call with a Twitter representative and to reflect that, as was blogged on AgendaWise, "Daniel does own thetexastribune.org, he does not own thetexastribune.com or thetexastribune.net."