What happened recently to Christian Fox is so bizarre it sounds like something out of Mad Libs — involving white nationalists, a guy in a fox costume, and the actor Wil Wheaton.
But what happened to Fox, a 20ish Salt Lake City-area resident with a sizable Twitter following, is a timely lesson in how free speech works — and doesn’t work — on a corporate-owned web platform.
Fox has more than 53,000 followers on Twitter, under the persona Goth Ms. Frizzle, dispensing offbeat humor and heartfelt self-reflection.
“My social-media style kind of evolved as a response to Twitter’s formatting,” Fox said in an email interview this week. “The 140-character set allows for a stream-of-consciousness style of humor and lets you crank out thoughts and writing quickly, which I enjoyed.”
Sometimes, though, Fox would get serious — like when they (Fox identifies as gender-neutral, using “they” and “them” for personal pronouns) called out members of the alt-right furry community.
Furries are people who like to dress up in animal costumes and create animal identities, called “Fursonas.” There have been recent controversies that furries with white-nationalist or Nazi viewpoints are exerting too much influence, particularly in online forums like Twitter. And Twitter was doing nothing about it.
“Voices of hate are emboldened as of late, both by current administrations and by world events, and the world online is doing little to mitigate the damage they’re doing,” Fox said.
The tweet Fox wrote that seemed to draw the most ire was posted in February and featured a photo of a furry known as Foxler, a gray fox with a black military-style shirt — and a red armband with a pawprint in the white circle where one might expect a swastika. Fox’s accompanying comment: “I’m going to live in the mountains as a monk until I’m strong enough to punch this person so hard their jaw separates from their skull.”
(In an April article on The Daily Beast, the person inside Foxler said his group of furries have no political affiliation and that he never noticed the similarities in his fox costume and fascist uniforms of the World War II era.)
Some have argued Fox’s comment was referencing Foxler’s fake costume head, not his real flesh-and-blood one. But the implication of violence was enough for the alt-right furry community to go after the Goth Ms. Frizzle account, @spookperson, using Twitter’s own tools.
A group of alt-right furries, Fox said, “exploited a flaw in Twitter’s support system, whereby a large number of reports of a tweet for harassment or violence immediately lock the account. Essentially, a coordinated effort by these individuals uses twitter’s broken harassment reporting system to silence anyone who disagrees with them through suspending their account.”
On Wednesday morning, Nov. 8, Fox’s account was suspended. Fox appealed the decision, even sending screen grabs of alt-right tweets documenting the coordinated effort. Twitter wouldn’t budge and said the ban would be permanent. Alt-right furries on Twitter gloated.
Fox (using a second Twitter account) was able to get the word out about the banishment. A great number of fans petitioned Twitter’s administrators to restore the account. Those included such famous fans as comedian Andy Richter and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” alum Wheaton. Another strong backer was Zoe Quinn, the writer and video-game developer who became an expert on online harassment when she was on the receiving end of it during the Gamergate unpleasantness a couple of years ago.
“Fortunately, I’m friends with some excellent people on Twitter and personally, who launched a coordinated effort to demonstrate the flaws in the system and the bias towards these groups the site demonstrates,” Fox wrote. Quinn, Fox added, “wrote the book on online harassment and her guidance, friendship, and assistance definitely made it possible for me to return.”
The “permanent” ban on Goth Ms. Frizzle lasted three days, and Twitter restored Fox’s account on Saturday, Nov. 11. Fox doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that reporters for Buzzfeed and The New York Post contacted them just hours before the account was restored.
Fox — who has altered their Twitter handle to “Goth Ms. Thankful,” both for Thanksgiving and as a nod to supporters — is undeterred about challenging white supremacists, in furry costumes or not, on Twitter.
“Opinions that are vast and varied deserve a chance to be heard, but calling for the deaths, exportation and demonization of minorities is not an opinion, it’s a threat to their existence,” Fox said. “Nazism and alt-right ideology marches under the banner of free speech, as long as it means only their exposition of hatred and violence are heard.”
The way to combat such tactics, Fox believes, “is to speak even louder and to oppose hatred even more fervently. Speak out. Stay loud. Spread love instead of hate.”