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Trump blasts Twitter over nonexistent "shadow bans"

July 26 · Issue #173 · View online
The Interface
A consequence of covering the intersection of social media and democracy is that sometimes you wind up having to discuss things that are very dumb. The somewhat infuriating controversy over Twitter’s “shadow banning” of prominent conservatives — something that it is in no way doing — is one of them. And yet how Twitter reacts to the attendant criticism could determine whether the company ever gets a handle on the abuse its platform is so well known for.
Yesterday I mentioned a misleading story in Vice whose headline then stated, falsely, that “Twitter is ‘shadow banning’ prominent Republicans like the RNC chair and Trump Jr.’s spokesman.” (It has since been changed.) That story drew from a Sunday piece by Gizmodo that described how some “controversial” accounts were being “demoted in search results.”
The first thing to note about this story is that it begins and ends with which accounts are suggested when one begins typing in a name in the Twitter search box. That’s it. The very worst thing Twitter can be accused of here is, in some cases, making you spell out some people’s full names if you wanted to read their tweets.
Like I said: very dumb.
This story starts last year, when Twitter belatedly began to remove low-quality and harassing tweets from search results. Twitter continued to refine search results based on many different signals, most of which it has not and will never share with us. One effect of this was that the company sometimes would not automatically suggest certain accounts to you, based on the behavior of that account and the accounts that interacted with it.
The operating theory here is that you can tell a lot about a Twitter account from its friends, and if it hangs out with filth, it might not deserve a place in your personalized autocomplete results. Twitter, of course, has been under enormous pressure to make changes like these, following a decade in which it struggled to get abuse under control.
Wired’s Issie Lapowsky talked to Twitter about what might have happened to demote a handful of conservatives in search results:
Twitter has been far from transparent in defining that bad behavior, but a few examples it’s given publicly include accounts that haven’t confirmed their email addresses or that signed up several accounts at once. Twitter doesn’t ban these accounts or the tweets they post. It instead reduces their visibility in users’ replies and also in search. The company’s algorithms also analyze who those accounts are connected to and whether accounts in those networks are also exhibiting troll-like behavior. But Twitter insists the algorithms have no way of knowing whether the people behind those tweets are Republicans or Democrats.
“If you send a tweet and 45 accounts we think are really trolly are all replying a hundred times, and you’re retweeting a hundred of them, we’re not looking at that and saying, ‘This is a political viewpoint.’ We’re looking at the behavior surrounding the tweet,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump was rage-tweeting about the Vice story. “Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans,” he said. “Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.” (For the record, it is not illegal to make someone spell out a person’s complete name to find their account.)
One negative consequence of today’s news cycle is to strip the word “shadowban” of its meaning — another once-useful piece of platform jargon, like “fake news,” that now barely coheres as an idea. As Brian Feldman recounts in New York, a shadowban — which allows a user to continue posting on a forum, without informing them that their posts are now visible only to them — “is useful in that rather than someone immediately being locked out and possibly retaliating by, for example, making a new account, the user fades away gradually due to the lack of interaction from other users.”
Thanks to the events of this week, though, “shadowban” seems fated to mean “getting less distribution than I personally think it should.” That was the idea that motivated this year’s disastrous Diamond and Silk hearing in Congress, and Twitter’s search hiccup could lead to yet another one.
But let’s be clear: the argument that Twitter has systematically disadvantaged conservative voices can only be made in bad faith. Just as the argument that Facebook systematically disadvantages conservative voices can only be made in bad faith.
Just because it was made in bad faith, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be effective. That was one of the lessons of Facebook’s last two years, in which a Gizmodo story that argued Facebook was “suppressing conservative news” led to the company eliminating human editors from its platform. That helped pave the way for the spread of misinformation on the platform that continues today.
And that’s why a very dumb story about Twitter search results is more consequential that it might first appear. Platforms that find themselves at odds with the president of the United States will be highly prone to overreaction — in ways that make the platform worse. The work Twitter has undertaken to reduce abuse has been welcome. And if it means typing a few more characters into a search box, I say so be it.

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