According to a report this week from VICE News, the social media site Twitter has been “shadow banning” prominent Republicans, making them much more difficult to find using the site’s search engine. The report singled out Republicans like RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, Don Jr.’s spokesman, and several GOP lawmakers as those who have been affected by the ban.
What happens is that when you search for these people on Twitter, their names do not come up in the auto-suggest dropdown box. The names still appear after you hit enter on a search and their tweets have not been hidden from view, but the question still remains why these Republicans have had their accounts partially obscured while prominent Democrats continue to show up in the suggestions as usual.
“The notion that social media companies would suppress certain political points of view should concern every American,” McDaniel told VICE News. “Twitter owes the public answers to what’s really going on.”
Asked for comment on the article, a Twitter spokesperson told the site that the auto-suggestion feature was not targeting political content but was rather making choices based on the “behavior” of the accounts in question. They informed VICE that they had started taking action against “troll-like behaviors” on the site, which explained why these accounts might have been removed from the dropdown list.
“Twitter’s troll hunt, however, has ensnared some of the most prominent Republicans in the country,” VICE wrote. “Type in the names of McDaniel, conservative members of Congress like Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, and Matt Gaetz, and Trump Jr.’s spokesman Andrew Surabian, for example, and Twitter’s drop-down search bar does not show their profiles. The search menu also does not display the verified profile of Rep. Devin Nunes of California, only his unverified one that he seldom uses to post. That limits their visibility and the ease of finding their profiles compared to their liberal counterparts.”
The fact that this practice was revealed by VICE only lends more credibility to the serious nature of the problem. No one will soon mistake VICE as an outlet with conservative sensibilities. If THEY recognize that this is an issue, it doesn’t leave much room for Twitter to claim innocence.
But claim they do.
From their blog post addressing the controversy:
For the most part, we believe the issue had more to do with how other people were interacting with these representatives’ accounts than the accounts themselves. There are communities that try to boost each other’s presence on the platform through coordinated engagement. We believe these types of actors engaged with the representatives’ accounts– the impact of this coordinated behavior, in combination with our implementation of search auto-suggestions, caused the representatives’ accounts to not show up in auto-suggestions. In addition to fixing search yesterday, we’re continuing to improve our system so it can better detect these situations and correct for them.
Twitter is sticking by its claim that none of this is specifically targeted at Republicans or conservative supporters of the president, but rather a by-product of an algorithm aimed at reducing the wrong kinds of “behavior.” That would be a plausible excuse IF the shadow bans had affected liberal users as frequently as conservatives and IF the company did not already have a disturbing history of penalizing right-wing users. As it stands, the company has squandered any claim to the benefit of the doubt. Until and unless they take transparent, effective action that proves their commitment to free speech and a politically-neutral platform, Twitter should be regarded as hostile territory for conservatives and for anyone else who cherishes open dialogue.