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Twitter, Wiley and the Interpretation of Violent Threats

Twitter, Wiley and the Interpretation of Violent Threats
29th July 2020 David Toube
David Toube
In Insights

Throughout the course of Friday 24 July, Richard Cowie – a pioneer of the “grime” genre who is more generally known by the stage name, Wiley – began to post a series of tweets and Instagram monologues on the subject of Jews. The rate at which Wiley posted these messages increased and the vitriol leveled at Jews was ramped up during the course of the day, until he was suspended for 12 hours, late on Friday night. On Saturday, the posting recommenced, but was met with a somewhat longer suspension at some point during the weekend. Wiley’s Instagram account was also locked.

It is possible that a disagreement of some kind with his manager John Woolf, who is Jewish, was the proximate trigger of Wiley’s diatribe on the subject of the pernicious nature of Jews. Whether or not that is so, Wiley’s postings were not focused upon that interpersonal dispute. Rather, they constituted a patchwork of often antisemitic claims about Jews, some drawn from the far-left, some from the far-right, and yet others appearing to reference derogatory perspectives on Jews common to Black Hebrew Israelite and Nation of Islam political theory.

Those who were shocked to see racist invective posted by a public figure responded first with bemusement, then with horror. Users of these platforms reported the posts, and demanded that Twitter and Instagram do something to curtail what they regarded as the encouragement of violence against Jews. Many felt that the circulation by a Twitter user with a large following of untrue and racist canards about supposed Jewish power, or Jewish responsibility as the claimed prime movers behind the Atlantic Slave Trade should have been addressed more quickly and comprehensively by those platforms. False allegations such as these have regularly motivated physical attacks on Jews.

Much of the anger and subsequent demand for action focused on a post in which Wiley stated: “Jewish people you make me sick and I will not budge hold this corn.” Those who looked that phrase up found various definitions, of which some indicated that to “hold corn” meant “to get shot with bullets,” in particular when the phrase was used in the context of “drill” music. Drill is a genre of British music, closely related to grime, which is characterised by overt threats of physical violence.

It is not possible to tell for certain what Wiley meant by “hold this corn.” The phrase does appear to have multiple meanings. Other definitions include “looking for trouble”: although it is possible that this secondary interpretation derives from the first. In a grime track entitled “Corn on the Curb” by Skepta, to which Wiley contributes a verse, the protagonist warns: “Corn on the curb if a man diss me/My niggas got the biscuits in T.” The gist of this lyric is that the singer’s associates will do something unpleasant to his antagonists if they treat him with disrespect. “Biscuits” in this context is sometimes employed to mean a gun, while “corn” can symbolise bullets.

Twitter operates a Hateful Conduct Policy which sets out the circumstances in which it will take action following its breach. That policy provides that users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people” who fall into one or more protected category. Under that general heading, Twitter sets out various sub-categories of conduct that further specify the manner in which the prohibition may be breached. The policy identifies direct “violent threats”, “wishing, hoping or calling for serious harm on a person or group of people, and references to mass murder, violent events”, and “specific means of violence where protected groups have been the primary targets or victims.” Notably, it also prohibits posts which constitute “targeting individuals with content intended to incite fear or spread fearful stereotypes about a protected category.”

Over the subsequent four days, a number of tweets were deleted. It is unclear whether these deletions were made by Twitter or by Wiley. Those tweets included one rather obscure messenger in which Wiley stated “I am the original stamford hill gang call me uncle Vincent Egerton Road gang” [archived here]. It is likely that this is a reference to an antisemitic attack on a Rabbi by assailants who shouted “Kill the Jews”. However, Twitter continued to display a tweet in which Wiley alleges falsely that 78% of American slave owners were Jews [archived here]. On Monday evening, a tweet in which Wiley insinuates that Jews control the making and enforcement of law, the banks, and the world was removed [archived here]. These tweets remained visible until Wiley’s account was suspended in its entirety. 

It is difficult to see how these three tweets could fail to breach the provision of the Twitter Hateful Conduct Policy which prohibits the incitement of fear or the spreading of fearful stereotypes and references to violent events. However, when faced with possible violent threats that are delivered in an unfamiliar patois, Twitter’s task is rather more difficult. It is certainly strongly arguable that the phrase “hold this corn” can be used to mean “get yourself shot” in the “Roadman” dialect favoured by grime artists. However, those who are tasked with identifying and evaluating such threats are most unlikely to possess sufficient expertise to make that call, accurately and consistently.

The UK Crown Prosecution Service encountered such a problem in 2004, when they considered prosecuting the Jamaican dance hall acts, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Elephant Man whose lyrics called for violence against gay people. The prosecuting authority explained that it had encountered difficulty in obtaining “reliable translations of the lyrics, which were written in patois.”

A similar issue arises where violent extremist groups develop and employ euphemistic and coded calls for violence, employing a terminology that is shared primarily by its supporters and other initiates. Likewise, there can be few Twitter employees who are sufficiently learned in Islamic doctrine to be able to detect similar forms of incitement to violence, couched in theological terms, when employed by Islamist terrorist groups. In all these cases, terminology will often be chosen in order to speak directly to a specific audience who will fully understand what is meant, while remaining obscure to those who are not members of the subculture that is the intended audience.

The prime complaint of those who expected action from Twitter over Wiley’s denunciations of Jews was that the publisher had failed to act decisively, speedily, and with an informed understanding of the nature of the content of the problematic tweets. It may be the case that Twitter was paralysed by the difficulty it encountered in interpreting the phrase “holding corn”. However, given that Twitter’s Hateful Conduct Policy treats the incitement of fear or the spreading of fearful stereotypes as a species of incitement to violence in any event, the question of the true meaning of that phrase is almost irrelevant.

David Toube is the Director of Policy at Quilliam International.