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Shadow banning by any other name

Twitter wasn’t what its former leaders explicitly claimed it to be

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Michael Reynolds/Pool Photo via Associated Press, File

Shadow banning by any other name
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On Dec. 8, former New York Times staff member Bari Weiss became the second independent journalist (Matt Taibbi was the first) to share findings from Twitter’s practices prior to Elon Musk’s purchase of the company. Weiss famously resigned from the Times due to her disillusionment with the intolerant and reflexive leftism she encountered at the organization.

Her feelings were notable given that she is ethnically Jewish, center-left in her politics, and legally married to a woman. Weiss, like Matt Taibbi, has launched a highly successful Substack newsletter and has helped spawn a movement promoting free speech and critical thinking. She is also one of the founders of the new University of Austin, which promises to recover the older academic virtues over against the censorship and emotional coddling of various “woke” approaches.

As was the case with Taibbi, Weiss has been given access to proprietary information about the way Twitter operated in the recent past. The first part of the reveal (covered here) focused largely on the way the company handled attempts to tweet about the Hunter Biden laptop story. This second information dump addresses the claim many have made that Twitter has engaged in a practice called “shadow banning.”

Various users feared that their reach was being dampened somehow by Twitter. Though the allegation was often made, Weiss points out that Twitter denied it. The head of Legal Policy and Trust at Twitter, Vijaye Gadde, explicitly denied that shadow banning was going on and made a point to deny that any such thing occurred on the basis of ideology or political viewpoint.

Based on Weiss’ reporting, such a denial could only be true based on incredible evasion and sophistry. While it is technically true that Twitter did not use the term “shadow banning” in its policy materials, executives and staff made extensive use of the apparently synonymous practice of “visibility filtering.” There was a strategic response team that handled up to 200 cases a day by filtering the visibility of tweets. In addition, there was a top-level group that handled the biggest cases.

Twitter advertised itself from the beginning as a great open forum and encouraged users to join the fray.

As an example, the group addressed itself to the Libs of Tik Tok account run by Chaya Raichik. Despite the fact that the account did nothing other than repost content on Twitter and did not violate any specific policy, it was prevented from trending and was given multiple suspensions on the basis that it was essentially unsafe. Why unsafe? By re-posting material from sexually liberal users of Tik Tok, the account supposedly endangered hospitals and physicians who offered gender-affirming care. It should be noted that something actually unsafe, such as the doxxing of Raichik and her home address, never merited any intervention.

Weiss provided other examples of visibility filtering, which were more subtle than the treatment @libsoftiktok received. Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya posted his concerns that COVID lockdowns could harm children. In response, Twitter secretly prevented his tweets from trending. The conservative talk show host Dan Bongino’s account picked up the tag “search blacklist,” which apparently made his material more difficult to find. The Turning Point USA activist Charlie Kirk’s account bore the label “Do not amplify.” None of these users nor members of the Twitter audience could know that Twitter did not offer a level playing field for participants.

Does it matter? Many downplay the complaints by saying that Twitter is not the government and does not have to abide by the strictures of the First Amendment. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that social media has thus far been treated differently from other publications that are held responsible for their content. The more control corporations such as Twitter exert, the stronger is the case that they should have all the obligations of journalistic outlets.

Second, and more crucially, Twitter advertised itself from the beginning as a great open forum and encouraged users to join the fray. In so doing, the company did manage to offer something many of us have found useful. But in a society riven by distrust of institutions, it is disturbing to once again find that there was a thumb on the scale, which put its weight in support of a particular ideological bent. Certainly, it is true that Twitter had the right to be whatever kind of outlet of opinions and information it wanted to be. Instead of proclaiming its innocence with regard to charges of manipulation, it should have owned its intent publicly.

These two rounds of revelations have been eye-opening. But, remember, we have been warned this is just the beginning of a deeper story.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker serves as dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul).

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