There has been a disturbing trend of increasing censorship against free speech on Twitter. This comes not from radicals or extremists on the platform but from Twitter itself. Needless to say the increased Twitter censorship is unsettling.
Twitter’s new safety policies
On Tuesday Twitter Safety made an announcement about new policies rolling out in the coming weeks.
“We stand for freedom of expression and people being able to see all sides of any topic. That’s put in jeopardy when abuse and harassment stifle and silence those voices. We won’t tolerate it and we’re launching new efforts to stop it.”
This makes no sense, as users on an egalitarian platform don’t have the capacity to “stifle and silence” one another. Everyone stands on equal ground. The only actor with the power to silence users is Twitter themselves, and that is, seemingly, exactly what they are doing.
“Today, we’re announcing three changes: stopping the creation of new abusive accounts, bringing forward safer search results, and collapsing potentially abusive or low-quality Tweets.”
More vaguery and Orwellian doublespeak. People’s concern here is that this is not about safety or protecting the integrity of the platform, but rather Twitter pushing its own ideological agenda.
The problem with censorship
The problem with censorship is always the same: who gets to decide?
Who gets to decide what’s acceptable and what’s to be censored? Who gets to decide what constitutes “abuse”? Who gets to decide when a search result is too “unsafe” or “sensitive” for you to see?
Others are calling attention to this issue. Click the tweet below to read the replies of Twitter users themselves.
There’s now a safer way to search.
Sensitive content will be hidden from your search results. Available on web. https://t.co/Bp4UVGufiA
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) February 7, 2017
Mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein saw this trend coming back in November 2016.
It would appear we are being psychologically prepared for a change in the algorithms that direct our attention.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) November 29, 2016
“Demonetization” on YouTube, the “fake news” narrative on MSM, & recent “suggested content” threads all hint at ‘trustworthy’ algos coming.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) November 29, 2016
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) February 8, 2017
These development have led to tweets like the following:
What wonderful weather we’re having today in San Francisco! pic.twitter.com/rxRDLs3gKK
— Andrew T. DeSantis (@desantis) February 8, 2017
…which remains an ominous joke, for now.
Users are increasingly calling for a decentralized, censorship-free platform.
Looking for a well implemented, open source, decentralized, censorship-free platform. The Bitcoin / BitTorrent of micro-blogging. https://t.co/OG9F6LXJBe
— Naval Ravikant (@naval) February 6, 2017
Is Twitter “shadowbanning” users with dissenting opinions?
There have also been allegations that Twitter “shadowbans” users who hold dissenting opinions. To shadowban is to secretly suppress the visibility of an account and its content, without informing the user or their followers that anything has changed.
Dilbert creator Scott Adams was likely shadowbanned late last year due to his ongoing commentary on the US presidential election.
Twitter bans journalists but verifies violent extremist groups
Despite the supposed concerns about safety, Twitter continues to allow accounts like that of Islami Chhatrashibir, the student wing of a Bangladeshi Islamist group who are linked to terrorist organizations and known to kill free thinkers and cut the tendons of their political rivals.
This is a Bangladeshi extremist group often known for killing secular Professors & freethinkers. Well done normalising terrorism, Twitter ? pic.twitter.com/JeJMUYCGXu
— Rayhana Sultan (@rayhana) February 7, 2017
Twitter (now famously) banned Milo Yiannopolous, a gay journalist, while assigning groups like this and the Muslim Brotherhood “Verified” status on their platform.
With a track record like this, can Twitter really be trusted to curate our content for us?
Does Twitter manipulate “trends on Twitter”?
Gizmodo reported last year that Facebook manipulates the “trending” module on its homepage to influence the content users see. Former Facebook employees admitted to removing political news that was counter to the narrative Facebook wants to enforce and “injecting” stories that align with Facebook’s political views.
Given what we know, how surprising would it be if there is something similar happening with trends on Twitter?
Why did Twitter suspend competitor platform Gab?
Twitter recently suspended the account of Gab, a competitor micro-blogging platform created in response to censorship and built around the idea of free speech.
— Brittany Pettibone (@BrittPettibone) February 9, 2017
Only after the issue received media attention did Twitter restore Gab’s account.
After a plethora of press outlets reached out to Twitter about our ban, this account was mysteriously restored. Really makes you think.
— Gab.ai (@getongab) February 9, 2017
Free speech is non-negotiable
Twitter has long been seen as a democratizing force and a revolutionary technology in the truest sense. Its role in the Arab Spring was an exemplary demonstration of how technology can create positive social change on the largest scale.
But that was over six years ago. Today Twitter wants to enforce murky censorship policies and crack down on the free speech of its own users for holding differing opinions.
And while it is political tension that has brought the issue of censorship to the fore, free speech goes far beyond partisan politics. The free exchange of ideas is a process uniquely responsible for determining the future of technology and society and it is one that we must protect at all costs.
If this trend towards censorship on Twitter continues, I predict the emergence of one or more viable alternatives and a mass exodus of content creators, free thinkers and influencers away from the platform. Only time will tell, but things are not looking good for Twitter.