Meet the Censored: Olivia Katbi-Smith

An activist for the Democratic Socialists for America tells of a cycle of bans

Olivia Katbi-Smith, a prominent activist in Portland, Oregon, lives at the intersection of two major pressure points for censorship in the United States. One is due to her involvement in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets the Israeli government over its treatment of the Palestinian population, and has been the subject of dozens of laws attempting to ban or criminalize BDS content.

The other her status since 2018 as the co-chair of the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Although the group is not formally associated with Bernie Sanders, the Sanders presidential campaigns inspired significant growth in its membership, and well-known members Rashida Tliab and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez occupy high-profile roles in congress. The DSA is not only one of the most prominent political groups in America to advocate for Palestinian causes, it has a strong presence in street activism about a variety of issues. This regularly puts it in the middle of publicized fights with right-wing groups, which is where potential problems begin.

As co-head of the DSA in a city that saw protracted street clashes this summer and fall, Katbi-Smith has been in the middle of some of the fiercest arguments between protesters this country has seen in a while. Katbi-Smith is often quoted defending aggressive street tactics.

“The right is not going to give up power unless they feel threatened,” she told the Washington Post in late October, adding that “people are opening up to the idea that rioting is the language of the unheard. Property destruction is not violence.”

Last year, in a Playboy article about Antifa, Katbi-Smith praised the black bloc, a masked group of activists Playboy described sympathetically, but also as a “messy” outfit whose “sometimes aggressive presence at rallies are [sic] a magnet for media attention.” After they reportedly interceded to prevent right-wing Patriot Prayer activists from interrupting a DSA meeting, Katbi-Smith, who wasn’t there that night, said, “People still wonder why we need the black bloc out there. That’s exactly why. They put their bodies on the line for us.”

Katbi-Smith’s prominent role during the protests won her a lot of attention from right-wing groups, which is probably where her problems with platforms like Twitter began.

While Internet firms rely upon Artificial Intelligence to flag troublesome content, AI has limits. Human complaints matter, too, and many people bounced from platforms like Facebook and Twitter are subjects of them. The problem is that such bans are often doled out in the middle of long, complicated arguments, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

In “mass reporting campaigns,” antagonists may accuse each other of hate speech, doxing, or other offenses, or one side may do it to another. The only thing that’s certain in these cases is that suspensions and deletions rarely take into account the entire history of disputes. In Katbi-Smith’s case, her problems seem to have started when she filed a lawsuit this fall against a reported member of the Proud Boys for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, in connection with an alleged doxing incident.

A lawsuit, at least, requires a public presentation of evidence. Internet bans, not so much. In the interview below, Kabti-Smith explains she was shortly after removed from Twitter multiple times, seemingly on the strength of complaints from people who were scanning her posting history, looking for potential technical violations.

The DSA’s public declaration of solidarity with Palestine and the BDS movement adds to the picture. Most of the higher-profile actions taken by Internet platforms have involved right-wing voices like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, or papers like the New York Post, leading to a widespread impression that “content moderation” only targets the right.

The reality is that the most advanced censorship campaigns that exist in America tend to involve BDS, which has been the subject of numerous laws and legislative proposals. The campaign to cut off boycotts and other actions against Israel often employs the same technique shrilly denounced by conservatives, i.e. using defamatory claims of bigotry (in this case, antisemitism) to cut off debate on campuses, in workplaces, and in government offices. Such campaigns have succeeded in getting professors fired, students disciplined, and institutions cut off from government funding if they participate in or allow BDS campaigns.

In one of the more notable instances, Steven Salaita lost a job at the University of Illinois to what was essentially a mass-reporting campaign, after students collected 1,300 signatures in protest of Tweets like the following:

Occasional temporary suspensions from private platforms may not seem like a big deal, but they’re important to note, as evidence that the new willingness to ban or delete content has influenced the thinking of activist groups. In the “content moderation” age, the biggest platforms will be tempted in heated political disputes toward one of two courses of action, neither great. Either they will take sides, or they’ll play Whac-a-Mole in superficial attempts to placate rival demographics.

The latter strategy, already in evidence, often results in bursts of quick suspensions and reinstatements as groups fink on each other, which in turn incentivizes political antagonists to ever-escalating patterns of mass reporting. This is one of the most predictable angles to the new corporate anti-speech movement: many of the groups protesting the loudest about censorship openly endorse such tactics, when it comes to political foes. The game becomes about who gets whom kicked off first, and/or keeps them off the longest.

As efforts to de-platform groups like the Proud Boys escalate, don’t be surprised if the definition of “Antifa” expands — Facebook this summer removed “980 groups, 520 pages, and 160 ads” as part of a sweep that included some groups connected with the nebulously-defined organization* — as Internet platforms work to convince customers of an even-handed approach. Although the idea that the “slippery slope” is a fallacy is increasingly popular on the left especially, it’s already been shown that with content moderation, bans in any one direction tend rather quickly to result in bans in more directions, as more and more groups learn how to trigger deletion mechanisms. Instead of encouraging a better argument, we’re encouraging better muffling strategies.

TK asked Katbi-Smith about all of this. It should be noted that in the time since she answered these questions, she was suspended and reinstated two more times:

TK: You filed a lawsuit against a North Carolina man, reportedly for doxing. Do you feel that is connected to recent suspensions from Twitter?

OK-S: Yes. I was doxxed by a Proud Boy [in November], who claimed that I’m a central leader and funder of Antifa, and my information was circulated all over 4chan and other disgusting right-wing corners of the Internet. This has led to a whole lot of death threats and unwanted attention from the far right, and that attention is something Zionists picked up on recently when @StopAntisemites named me the “antisemite of the week”, citing my work for Palestinian rights and my involvement in DSA. I believe this account and its supporters are behind a mass reporting effort that resulted in my suspension. Stopantisemitism.org is funded by Adam Milstein, who also funds Turning Point USA and Project Veritas, and is connected with similar efforts such as Canary Mission. These kinds of mass reporting efforts are their bread and butter. I actually saw in replies people were asking if I had Instagram, so it was clear they were hoping to move this campaign to other platforms as well.  

TK: What's the chronology of your suspensions from Twitter? Did they provide explanations?

OK-S: I was suspended on Monday, [November] 23rd, one day after the @StopAntisemites smear, with no warning, no notification, and no explanation. I only realized I was suspended when I went to DM a tweet to someone and it said that the action was forbidden. After lots of people tweeted at Twitter support and others tried to reach out to internal contacts at Twitter, my account was reinstated about 24 hours later, only to be suspended again 5 hours after that, again with no notification or explanation. My account was reinstated again this past Sunday the 22nd, with an email from Twitter that essentially said “it looks like everything is fine”. No acknowledgment, no explanation, nothing.

TK: Had you had any warnings? Did they give you a process for appealing? 

OK-S: There were no warnings given and no specific tweet or violation of the Twitter rules cited, and no appeal or other recourse options mentioned. I went on the Twitter site and found a form to submit an appeal that way, which I did both times. About a day before my first suspension, I got a notification that my account was locked because a tweet had violated the rules. The tweet in question was a photo of my dad, and the violation was that “an individual pictured is from a country with privacy laws.” Obviously, someone was scrolling through my Twitter looking for things to report, and that should have been a red flag for me. [Eds note: Katbi-Smith was recently suspended again for this “country with privacy laws” reason, after posting a selfie. It was not explained to her which country was at issue, or whose privacy was violated].

TK: Has the DSA had any other issues that you're aware of with content moderation? Do you know anyone else connected with Portland protests who had issues on that front? 

OK-S: I know this has happened to so many Palestine activists, who get put on Canary Mission’s racist blacklist and then who have their lives ruined — they might lose their jobs, and they definitely become the target on these online campaigns — and I know many who were never able to get their accounts back.

One of my main alleged offenses of antisemitism was being involved in DSA. So for DSA, I think Palestine will be the main issue used to attack us - just like they did with the Labour Party and Corbyn. Because of this, I think we’ll see more open collaboration to take down DSA between the far-right and Zionists who might have otherwise been pretending to be liberal. We already saw the Democrats in power in the New York State Assembly proposed banning NYC DSA from the state legislature, alleging that they’re antisemitic because they asked a question about boycotting Israel on their candidate questionnaire. We have to put a stop to these smears before they start, and never, ever, give them an inch, unless we want to have the same fate as Labour. 

TK: How do you see this issue? Is it a censorship problem, or corporate overreach, or do you view it in some other light? 

OK-S: This was clearly a result of the targeted harassment and smear campaign I’ve been facing for my activism, coordinated between far-right actors—actual antisemites—and Zionists. I think we will only see more of these kinds of cases, especially for activists that focus on Palestine, as institutions and companies are now being heavily pressured to adopt the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism, which classifies criticism of Israel as antisemitic. The proposed laws in France to ban people from publishing photos of police officers is another example. I think we’re seeing an increased push for policies that will be used to harm grassroots activists but that will be presented with this sort of “banning hate speech” language.

Speaking out against an apartheid state is hate speech, identifying cops is hate speech, etc. Meanwhile, the actual victims of hate speech and death threats, those who aren’t in any position of power, like myself, will be the ones punished with no recourse. Unless this trajectory is halted in some way, antisemitism will be weaponized to crush all progressive, grassroots activism, and actual antisemites and their little forums and militias will continue to spread their violent rhetoric, violent ideas, and inspire actual acts of violence.

*An original version of this article incorrectly identified all 980 of the groups removed by Facebook as being connected to Antifa.