Twitter has taken the world by storm. For many people around the world, it is an essential source of information on world events, as well as a way to express themselves online. Yet as the impact and significance of Twitter has grown, so has the necessity to exclude some accounts from participating in the social network. As a result, allegations of censorship have emerged.
So how does Twitter decide which accounts to ban, and which to approve? As anyone who has regularly used the site will testify, the company's practices can sometimes seem a little murky, but there are some things we know for sure about how censorship on Twitter works.
1. Shadowbanning accounts
Critics have been making allegations for years but in 2018 Twitter made an official announcement confirming that they will be limiting the visibility of “suspect accounts.”
Officially, the company stated that the proliferation of trolls had sparked this "shadowbanning" strategy, often associated with the censorship measures applied by repressive regimes.
This was quite a change from how things were previously, when Twitter would only ban individual accounts due to the content of their tweets. The new strategy involves analyzing the patterns of tweeting. For instance, if a user regularly tweeted to strangers, it might be a sign of harassment or trolling.
By determining which accounts qualified as suspect, Twitter could relegate their content to obscure regions of peoples' feeds, effectively neutralising their activity.
All of that sounds unobjectionable. Other than the trolls themselves, no one really things armies of Russian bots should be allowed to rampage on Twitter, making user experience miserable and subverting public opinion. But the move has led to criticism of Twitter censoring conservatives.
In fact, this criticism came from the White House itself, with Donald Trump citing "Many complaints" (ironically, in a tweet).
However, the social network responded to allegations of Twitter censoring conservatives, explaining that "[its] behavioural ranking doesn’t make judgments based on political views or the substance of tweets." Instead, any aggrieved users had their behaviour to blame for slipping down feeds and search results.
2. Censoring hashtags
While conservative activists in the USA have vocally accused Twitter of silencing their voices, others have pointed to the hashtags used by the social network. For these critics, the spread of hashtags (marked by a # symbol) across Twitter is far from neutral.
In theory, hashtags are supposed to spread based on their popularity and the speed at which they "trend." But there's more to it than that, and this is where confusion can arise.
It’s not just overall popularity that makes certain topics trend: they also have to be popular with "new audiences,” as well as be new themselves. This is done in line with Twitter’s strategy to maintain the content on their platform “fresh,” and grow the user base. A static user base is no good as a business model as opposed to attracting a constant stream of new users.
Yet it’s not hard to see how this can create a situation that’s suspicious to regular users. It seems reasonable to assume that a topic or event getting thousands of tweets would trend. If the users making the tweets are the usual suspects, Twitter’s algorithm may hinder the popularity of such hashtags.
This may look like Twitter censoring hashtags, but is actually just a result of the way the company handles information.
This hasn't prevented many people accusing the network of operating a Twitter censorship policy based on hashtags. For example, the conservative site Breitbart accused Twitter of censoring hashtags critical of Hilary Clinton during the 2016 election.
You can understand why people are angry about the company's hashtag policy, but it's not technically censorship. Unless we see the construction of algorithms as a form of censorship. However, Twitter would contest this, arguing that their algorithms are entirely neutral - which all the evidence suggests is the case.
3. Banning accounts
While it’s true that Twitter occasionally outright removes accounts, the matter of whether this is censorship is more difficult to gauge.
To be banned, users need to meet certain criteria, and Twitter is fairly open about what these comprise:
- Spamming - sending bulk posts to certain targets, or flooding Twitter's servers with hundreds of marketing messages every day.
- Hacking - anyone who seeks access to Twitter's systems is automatically out.
- Fake accounts - While users can impersonate and parody others, copying bios and avatars is frowned upon.
- Sending or linking to malware - no comment required.
- Revealing private information about other users (doxxing)
- Abuse and hateful content - this is often the most controversial aspect of Twitter's banning policy. What constitutes a threat or insult can be subjective. But as Twitter explains, most speech is protected. Promoting violence against other users, racial abuse, or targeted harassment are all prohibited, as is encouraging others to commit suicide.
Usually, these rules are triggered by user complaints, which aren’t always reviewed in favor of the complainant. Even when they are, there’s an appeals process that can result in rulings being overturned.
Users temporarily removed from the platform may have to supply a phone number to access their accounts - which is surely a massive privacy issue. But it's not what we usually mean by censorship.
Still, this hasn't prevented many people from accusing Twitter of removing followers unjustly. For example, the hashtag #TwitterLockOut spread early in 2018 when conservatives lost huge numbers of followers overnight.
However, it looks like this "purge" was due to Twitter flushing out colonies of Russian bots, or bots made for sale to Twitter users. Still, the allegations won't go away.
4. Censoring tweets - does it happen?
But what if Twitter could either remove or suppress individual tweets at will? Wouldn't this give the company absolute power to determine which subjects gain exposure, and which wither away?
We’ve already discussed the practice of shadowbanning, but when it comes to the censorship of individual tweets, there are more allegations than there is evidence.
With one caveat. Twitter has been known to filter tweets in accordance with the wishes of governments. For example, the social network agreed to block anti-government tweets in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other countries.
In Thailand, for instance, Twitter admitted that it could remove tweets deemed critical of the monarchy, making them invisible to Thai users.
So yes, the platform has the capacity to censor individual tweets. Does it do so in most countries? Probably not. But it could.
How to avoid falling victim to censorship on Twitter
To avoid getting censored by Twitter, learn the platform’s rules. Sometimes your actions may not be malicious, yet still fall under one of Twitter’s punishable offenses, so it’s good practice to know what you’re up against.
It may also be handy to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to conceal your location and identity. Twitter uses location information to determine whether users are genuine, but it's not a precise strategy. So if you move around a lot, a VPN could help you stay on the right side of the platform's algorithms.