opinion


The social media censorship debate intensifies

online censorship free speech

Twitter has been accused of ‘shadowbanning’ certain types of user, once more calling into question the role of private companies in public censorship.

The accusation comes in the form of a report from Project Veritas, which used hidden cameras to record current and former Twitter employees appearing to confirm and endorse the practice of ‘downranking’ or even ‘shadowbanning’ specific Twitter users if they disapprove of what they’re posting.

In essence Twitter stands accused by this report of deprioritising posts from certain users without notifying them. This results in those users getting less prominence on the platform and thus, it’s alleged, effectively having their posts buried. The criteria for this deprioritisation are unclear, thus leaving Twitter open to accusation of potential bias along ideological, commercial or other grounds.

Twitter has responded via Fox News with the following statement, which also addresses accusations that it’s too quick to divulge private communications such as direct messages to state agencies.

“Twitter only responds to valid legal requests, and does not share any user information with law enforcement without such a request,” said the Twitter spokesperson. “We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a pre-determined narrative.

“Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules. Twitter does not shadowban accounts. We do take actions to downrank accounts that are abusive, and mark them accordingly so people can still to click through and see these Tweets if they so choose.”

The question begged by Twitter’s response revolves around how it defines ‘accounts that are abusive’. It’s probably not hyperbole to suggest that the majority of Twitter accounts yield comments that could be considered abusive from time to time, but we assume the majority of accounts are not being downranked.

It seems unlikely that political ideology forms a central part of the internet giants’ business strategies – certainly not above growth, profit, etc. But as the Damore vs Google case shows there is concern that certain viewpoints may be so intrinsic to some organisations that a degree of bias is built into their entire corporate culture. If this is the case then it’s not unreasonable to assume that employees charged with policing their public platforms may also be influenced in that direction.

Another concern over private organisations censoring public discourse is derived directly from the profit motive. Many mainstream media routinely focus on a core set of narratives designed to appeal to their audience – just look at the Guardian vs the Daily Mail – and it’s not inconceivable that social media might be tempted to do the same.

It is therefore to Facebook’s credit that it has recently announced a major change to how it prioritises what appears on a given individual’s Facebook feed to give preference to personal stuff over commercially driven content. “I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

On the flip side Google-owned YouTube is in the middle of an ongoing controversy over the practice of ‘demonetization’. YouTube faced a lot of pressure to be more careful about which videos it serves ads on earlier this year and has since been a lot more proactive in this area. Since professional YouTubers largely rely on ad revenue for their business model, having that stream removed is very significant and potentially a form of censorship.

The original controversy revolved around ads being served against what was considered to be ‘extremist’ content and it’s hard to argue that putting your brand next to such stuff is a good look. But just as with other pivotal terms such as ‘hate’ and ‘abusive’, we lack a broad consensus for the definition of ‘extremist’.

One example of a popular YouTuber who is currently seeing some of his content demonetized by YouTube, but who it would be difficult to describe as ‘extremist’, is US interviewer Dave Rubin. His M.O. is to film extended dialogues with interesting people and his stated socio-political position is ‘classic liberal’ with an emphasis on freedom of speech. Here’s his latest tweet on being demonetized by YouTube.

We seem to be at a critical juncture regarding public discussion on the internet, with the almost impossible task of balancing a variety of conflicting and increasingly entrenched interests being passed around like a hot potato. This topic was recently discussed at the CES tech show, which you can watch below (warning: there’s about a minute of pointless noise at the beginning). The point made by Eric Weinstein at 17:00 about the different forms of fake news touches on part of the challenge and you can see him expand on them to one Dave Rubin below that.


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