NBC News, with authors Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny, have released a piece detailing Twitter's latest attempts to stomp out the flickering embers of the QAnon 'conspiracy' group on their platform.
QAnon Quashed - Twitter "takes down" QAnon-related accounts
In the piece, Collins and Zadrozny highlight the broad strokes the social media company has taken to take down more than 7,000 QAnon related accounts, citing that all of these accounts participated in “targeted harassment”, which is against their Terms of Service (ToS). While these accounts may or may not have been participating in the pile-on of Chrissy Teigen that claimed she was a part of Jeffrey Epstein’s global pedophile ring, the real impact of this mass action comes from the accounts that Twitter did not ban at all.
The Mask Slips - Twitter’s ‘limit’ functionality disclosed following hack
In addition to the more than 7,000 accounts that Twitter has taken down via this QAnon related banning spree, there have been more than 150,000 accounts that have had “limits” placed on them to prevent their content from spreading. The brakes that Twitter placed on this massive pool of accounts include a freeze on recommending accounts to follow to other users that have QAnon on their profile or post QAnon related content.
On top of this, Twitter will be taking steps to crack down on the distribution of such content in their trends (#hashtags) and search tabs, according to NBC’s inside sources. What this means is that any of those 150,000+ accounts will no longer be able to be found by other users, even by directly searching for them, and for their existing audiences, their content will be throttled and stopped before it is allowed to circulate to the broader population on Twitter.
Twitter has internal blacklist tool
This action by Twitter comes less than a week after a monumental hack took over the website’s Control Panel granting the hackers access to any account they desired, even through these accounts had extra security measures like two-factor authentication. The Control Panel was leaked to the public through screenshots obtained by the hackers during the attack. On this Control Panel, the options ‘Search Blacklist’ and ‘Trends Blacklist’ are clearly visible as an available action to the administrator (or, in this case, hacker) with access to the panel.
Twitter Control Panel as revealed by the July 15th, 2020 hack on the platform.
Section 230 and Twitter - The Background
Twitter’s stock price has increased over the last 5 years to a current price of around $37 per share, giving it a market cap of more than $29B. However, Twitter share prices have trailed the broader stock market and in particular tech stocks during this time period. There are approximately 166 million daily active users (DAUs) worldwide on Twitter, including ~33 million in the United States alone. With all of these people posting content ranging from their political opinions to art and music, there is sure to be some obscene or criminal activity taking place on the platform.
Congress provides valuable protections to these platforms in the form of criminal and civil liability shields, and in return, Twitter (and other social media platforms) commit to a non-legally binding verbal agreement of sorts to use “Good Samaritan” methods, tools and policies to block and prevent this obscene and criminal content. With the way that Congress worded the section 230 law, tech companies do not have to explicitly provide anything in return.
With this leniency built in to their liability protection, the tech platforms have begun over the last several years to limit, censor and outright ban right-of-center voices from the internet. Twitter is among the biggest censors that have stepped forward in their quest to crush the right-wing online presence, as is detailed in Dr. Richard Hanania’s study on partisan censorship online.
The administrators of the site have repeatedly banned and suspended accounts for posting content that violates their ever-shifting ToS. For example, discussing Transgenderism or Abortion from the negative perspective is grounds for a ban as these topics are enshrined in the new ToS as ways that users ‘harm and harass’ others. Even without tagging a specific individual, posting an opinion contrary to the left-wing orthodoxy, even on a private account, will often lead you to a ban or temporary suspension as Twitter sees this as aggressive and harmful behavior. Stating obvious truths such as tweeting "men are not women" are now grounds for getting an account suspended.
NBC Exposes Dorsey’s Lies - How Much Will It Hurt Twitter?
In Congressional Testimony in 2018, Jack Dorsey attested under oath that “Twitter doesn’t shadowban.” Furthermore, Dorsey said that Twitter “believe[s] strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our rules impartially” and that "...Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules.” As shown with this QAnon-related throttling, Dorsey clearly lied to Congress during his 2018 testimony.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Conservative users that have been impacted since the 2016 election, 150,000 more users are being limited (a.k.a. Shadowbanned or blacklisted) by Twitter because of their political beliefs, which the company holds to be conspiratorial or harmful.
NBC, Twitter And Beyond
The Control Panel hack shows that this tool exists and is actively in use, and this report from NBC details exactly how the panel is being used to limit the flow of Conservative or even just right-leaning content on their platform. While there are no legal ramifications for this yet, it clearly violates the spirit of the section 230 regulations. Hopefully, Congress will take serious action and follow up on the President’s Executive Order to clarify the protections under the law, and eliminate protections for companies that are politically biased publishers like Twitter.