Twitter Responds To Conservative Outrage As VICE Confirms "Shadow Ban" Reports

A Wednesday article in VICE confirmed a report from last week by the Daily Wire's Ryan Saavedra which revealed that Twitter has been "shadow banning" conservative users by limiting the number of people who are able to view content from the affected users. 

While last week's discussion focused on a site-wide "Quality Filter Discrimination" shadow ban, which prevents anyone not already following a user from viewing their posts, Vice notes that many conservative accounts aren't able to be found when typing names into the Twitter search engine. 

The Republican Party’s chair Ronna McDaniel, several conservative Republican Congressmen, and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman no longer appear in the auto-populated drop-down search box on Twitter, VICE News has learned. It’s a shift that diminishes their reach on the platform — and the same one being deployed against prominent racists to limit their visibility. The profiles continue to appear when conducting a full search — but not in the more convenient and visible drop-down bar. (The accounts appear to also populate if you already follow the person.)

Vice found the same wasn't true for Democrats: 

Democrats are not being “shadow banned” in the same way, according to a VICE News review. McDaniel’s counterpart, Democratic Party chair Tom Perez, and liberal members of Congress — including Reps. Maxine Waters, Joe Kennedy III, Keith Ellison, and Mark Pocan — all continue to appear in drop-down search results. Not a single member of the 78-person Progressive Caucus faces the same in Twitter’s search.

After being shown screenshots of the searches, a Twitter spokesperson told VICE News: “We are aware that some accounts are not automatically populating in our search box and shipping a change to address this.” Asked why only conservative Republicans appear to be affected and not liberal Democrats, the spokesperson wrote that “I'd emphasize that our technology is based on account *behavior* not the content of Tweets.”

The undercover investigative journalists at Project Veritas even caught a Twitter employee admitting to the shadow bans in January: 

Abhinav Vadrevu:  "One strategy is to shadow ban so you have ultimate control. The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone but they don't know they've been banned, because they keep posting but no one sees their content."

"So they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it. I don't know if Twitter does this anymore."

Meanwhile, Olinda Hassan, a Policy Manager for Twitter’s Trust and Safety team said on December 15th, 2017 at a Twitter holiday party that the development of a system of “down ranking” “shitty people” is in the works:

“Yeah. That’s something we’re working on. It’s something we’re working on. We’re trying to get the shitty people to not show up. It’s a product thing we’re working on right now.”

Twitter responds

Twitter's product lead Kayvon Beykpour issued a mostly useless explanation over the platform on Wednesday morning, suggesting that they're "always working to improve our behavior-based ranking models," and that their "breadth an accuracy doesn't make judgements based on political views."

CEO Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, says "It suffices to say we have a lot more work to do to earn people's trust on how we work." No word on whether that will be before or after midterms.  

We’ve heard questions from some of you relating to our work to drive healthy conversation on Twitter. People are asking us 1) about the breadth and precision of our work & 2) the impact of our work on the Search experience. We wanted to address these questions transparently here.

In May, we started using behavioral signals and machine learning to reduce people’s ability to detract from healthy public conversation on Twitter. This approach looks at account behavior & interactions with other accounts that violate our rules.

On 1) We’re always working to improve our behavior-based ranking models - their breadth and accuracy will improve over time. It’s important to note that these behavior signals are not binary, and they are one of many other signals that factor into ranking.

To be clear, our behavioral ranking doesn’t make judgements based on political views or the substance of tweets. We recently publicly testified to Congress on this topic https://judiciary.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Pickles-Testimony.pdf

On 2) Some accounts weren’t being auto-suggested even when people were searching for their specific name. Our usage of the behavior signals within search was causing this to happen & making search results seem inaccurate. We’re making a change today that will improve this.

We believe this work is really important to creating a healthier Twitter and we want to continue improving. Your feedback helps us do that so please keep it coming.

Meanwhile, conservative outrage erupted Wednesday in response to Vice's report. 

In May, Donald Trump's 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, along with Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, wrote a letter calling for the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter to address concerns over conservative censorship ahead of the 2020 election, as well as a call for transparency.

"We recognize that Facebook and Twitter operate in liberal corporate cultures," the letter reads. "However, rampant political bias is inappropriate for a widely used public forum."

The letter notes "In 2016, former Facebook workers reported that they manipulated the “trending” section to exclude news tailored to conservative users, despite those topics trending on their own," while "A former trending news curator admitted in an interview that nearly all members of the trending news teams identified as liberal... Moreover, some Facebook employees in 2016 reportedly pushed to ban then-candidate Donald Trump’s Facebook posts and label them as hate speech" 

Meanwhile, conservative Twitter users have accused the company of unfairly targeting them, purging thousands of their followers in an attempt to stem “fake news” content, and unnecessarily prompting them to confirm their identity. Twitter claims its tools are free from political bias, but has allegedly targeted predominantly Republicans as part of a “shadow banning” practice, which covertly limits those accounts’ visibility on the platform.

Parscale and McDaniel pointed out that during congressional testimony, Facebook apologized for suppressing "Diamond & Silk," two popular Trump supporters with a highly popular YouTube channel, which the platform deemed "unsafe to the community" for no reason.

 

They also noted that Facebook says it's "working with a third party to encourage voter registration," and asked for transparency over how those advertisements are displayed in people's news feeds. "This is to make sure that the new feature does not become essentially an in-kind contribution to liberal candidates."

Since Facebook and Twitter are platforms used widely by the majority of voters, we request an explanation about how you will ensure all content is managed equally and fairly. How will you safeguard voters’ access to fair content on your platform? How will you guarantee that conservative voices are no longer censored, and conservative news no longer buried or otherwise hidden?

In an interview with Fox News, McDaniel and Parscale reiterated their concerns: 

McDaniel: "It’s a legitimate fear. Brad and I hear it all the time as we’re traveling the country. People are very concerned that conservative voices are going to be suppressed on social media. Of course, many of their users are conservatives and so Brad and I feel preemptively, we have to get out ahead of this, talk to Facebook, talk to Twitter, ask them for transparency, let us know what you’re going to do to make sure that every voice has a say on these social media platforms especially before this critical midterm."

Parscale: "Every day I receive thousands of messages saying, “I’m being shadow-banned.” And what we want to do in this letter is make sure that we understand what's happening. We want to ask them for transparency. I think the public deserves that transparency and we need to know that conservative voices have a chance to get their message out. This is a big problem."

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