Trump Calls for Immediate Inquiry Into Twitter ‘Shadow Banning’ Republicans
President Donald Trump said his administration will probe the practice of handicapping, or “shadow banning,” accounts of prominent Republicans on the social media platform Twitter.
“Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints,” Trump said in a July 26 tweet.
Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Shadow banning is the practice by social media platforms of surreptitiously reducing or blocking the visibility of a user’s content. Conservatives, libertarians, and others right-of-center have been complaining about shadow banning for years, though the full extent of the problem is not yet clear.
On July 25, an article by Vice News showed evidence that the accounts of several Republican congressmen wouldn’t appear in the suggested search results on Twitter. Also affected were Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman, Andrew Surabian.
“We are aware that some accounts are not automatically populating in our search box and shipping a change to address this,” a Twitter spokesperson told Vice.
A day later, the search bar appeared to function normally for the affected accounts. But the spokesperson didn’t explain why all of the affected people were politically on the right.
On May 15, Twitter announced it was integrating “behavioral signals” into “how we organize and present content in communal areas like conversation and search.”
The company stated that the approach targets content that is characterized as “troll-like behaviors that distort and detract from the public conversation on Twitter.” What exactly constitutes “troll-like behaviors” was not discussed.
Many have asked who, or what, can hold social media giants accountable. Twitter’s legal, public policy, and trust and safety lead, Vijaya Gadde, is responsible for setting the platform’s behavior policies.
“I think what we hold ourselves accountable to is … providing a lot of transparency into what we’re doing, providing clarity for the people using our service, and then being consistent,” she said in a recent interview with Slate magazine. “I think that we have a lot of room to improve in all of those areas.”
Conservatives often preface their complaints with a disclaimer that Twitter, as a private company, can set whatever user policies it wants. It’s the murkiness that irks them.
“This type of opaque behavior by social media companies is exactly why conservatives are speaking out and demanding more transparency and accountability,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Vice in a statement.
If Twitter is proven to have secretly taken sides in political discourse, it could be open to legal challenges. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), whose Twitter account was affected, already said he’s mulling filing a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission.
“I believe that Twitter may have illegally donated to the campaigns of my opponents by prejudicing against my content,” he told The Daily Caller.
The growth of the number of new Twitter followers Gaetz acquired slowed by over 70 percent after Twitter announced the new policies, based on data he provided the publication.
Shadowbanning is employed by forum moderators, who let disruptive users post comments but hide them from other users, effectively making the trolls talk only to themselves.
In October 2016, Libertarian Party chairman Nicholas Sarwark said he had screenshots documenting shadowbanning and even confirmed the practice with Twitter employees. Shadowbanned content would be “accidentally” marked as spam, he wrote in a tweet.
Very real. I have screen captures and have confirmed with Twitter employees. "Accidentally" marked as spam. @Zach_Gafford
— Nicholas Sarwark (@nsarwark) October 3, 2016
In January, Project Veritas released videos of eight Twitter employees and former employees describing to undercover investigators how the company uses an array of tools to identify users with conservative, pro-Trump, pro-America, or even pro-God views and targets them for censorship.
Pranay Singh, a direct messaging engineer at Twitter, was recorded explaining how the company uses algorithms to scan tweets for certain keywords and then disables the accounts as suspected Russian “bots.”
“You look for Trump, or America, or any of 5,000 keywords to describe a redneck,” he said.
He said most such algorithms were designed to target Republicans.
Former Twitter software engineer Abhinav Vadrevu was recorded as saying that a shadowban is one strategy that gives the platform “ultimate control” as the targets “just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it.”
Twitter software engineer Steven Pierre said he was working on a secret project that would have artificial intelligence determine whether Twitter users write in a positive or a negative manner. If their conduct, not the content of the tweet, is determined as negative or “aggressive,” their tweets would be penalized.
“They may have a point, but it will just, like, vanish,” he was recorded saying.
It’s not clear whether the project was included in the May 15 policy change.
Surabian’s account now appears in the suggested search results, but it still appears that his account has been penalized. A Twitter search for the exact text of one of his recent tweets failed to locate it. Only after changing the “Search filters” setting to switch the “Quality filter” function off (it’s on by default) did the tweet show up. His other tweets did show up in the results with the filter on.
Twitter didn’t respond to an inquiry about the search results.
Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe said in a statement that he’s glad to see Twitter’s practices exposed in mainstream media, adding, “We are excited to see what the president plans to do, and we will be happy to offer our assistance.”
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“I reject a system which allows an ambitious, misinformed and dogmatic mob to suppress free speech, create false narratives, and apathetically steamroll over the truth.”