In a tweet this morning, President Trump accused Twitter of “shadow banning” prominent Republicans. He said he would investigate the “discriminatory and illegal” practice of shadow banning at once. Trump is not the first Republican to complain about shadow banning. One of Trump’s staunch allies in the House, Matt Gaetz, said he had been “victimized” by the service. And RNC chair Ronna McDaniel slammed Twitter for allegedly making it harder for users to search for her.
Twitter has admitted that there are some glitches in its service. But the site says they do not shadow ban and that they never rank users based on politics or on the substance of their tweets.
Here’s what you need to know.
Shadow Banning Means Making It Virtually Impossible to Search for Certain Twitter Users on the Site
Leading Republicans say that Twitter is effectively making them vanish from the site, by making it much harder for other Twitter users to locate them. “Shadow banning” — which has also been called “ghosting” — makes certain Twitter handles much harder to search for on the site. If, for example, you went to Twitter and typed “Andrew Surabian” (Donald Trump Jr’s spokesman) into the search box, his Twitter handle didn’t pop up in the auto-fill box. So the only way you could locate him was if you happened to know his Twitter handle, @surabees.
The same thing was happening for-Republican National Committee Chair, Ronna McDaniel and Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, among others.
Vice News first broke the story about “shadow banning” earlier this week. The story pointed out that no prominent Democrats were being impacted by the shadow ban. The Democrtatic National Committee Chair, Tom Perez, was not impacted, even though his Republican counterpart, Ronna McDaniel, was. And no members of the Democrats’ progressive caucus were affected by the shadow ban.
As of mid-morning today, the problem seemed to be fixed, at least for the particular Republicans mentioned in the Vice article. A quick search for their names showed that auto-fill was working, and their twitter handles popped up as suggestions right away. But it’s not clear whether other people are still impacted by the shadow ban.
Twitter’s New Anti-Troll Policy May Have Impacted Leading Republicans On The Site
Vice reports that Republicans started to notice “shadow banning” around the same time as Twitter rolled out a new police to combat trolling. On May 15, Twitter issued a statement about some steps it was taking against trolling. You can read that statement here. The goal of the policy was reduce the visibility of Twitter accounts that put out hateful, bigoted content.
A spokesperson for Twitter told Vice News that the alleged “shadow bans” were the result of its new anti-trolling policy. The spokesperson added that they are working to improve their algorithms so that it doesn’t impact real, non-troll accounts.
Twitter’s CEO, jack Dorsey, started tweeting about his plans to address trolling back in March. You can read his series of tweets here. Dorsey said that he wanted Twitter to “increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation” and that “trolls” make it harder to have a civil public conversation. He said that “troll armies” had been taking advantage of Twitter and that he wanted to crack down on them. He added that since Twitter started its anti-trolling campaign, they’ve been accused of censorship and political bias — but he denied that this was the case.
3. One of Trump’s Staunchest Allies in Congress Says He Has Been “Victimized” By Twitter, and the RNC Chair Says Twitter Owes the Public Some Answers
Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida, is one of Trump’s staunches allies in the House of Representatives. Gaetz’s spokesperson said that, not only was it harder for Twitter users to find Gaetz’s twitter handle, but there had also been a “significant decrease” in Gaetz’s followers and retweets. The spokesperson said they started to notice a major decrease around May 15, which is when Twitter announced its new policy on “troll-like behavior.”
Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, says that Twitter “owes the public some answers.” McDaniel said that she was effectively shadow banned on twitter, because the site was making it much harder for people to find her name. After McDaniel complained publicly, the problem was fixed, and her twitter handle now pops up in the autofill drop-box as soon as you start typing in her name.
4. Twitter Says It Doesn’t “Shadow Ban” Users and Doesn’t “Rank” Anyone Based on Politics
A spokesperson for Twitter told NBC News that the site never “shadow bans” its users. The spokesperson admitted that there has been a problem with its search function, but they said it had nothing to do with politics. And they promised that Twitter was working on a way to solve the problem. “As we have said before, we do not ‘shadowban’. We are aware that some accounts are not automatically populating in our search box, and shipping a change to address this,” the spokesperson told NBC News. “The profiles, Tweets and discussions about these accounts do appear when you search for them. To be clear, our behavioral ranking doesn’t make judgments based on political views or the substance of Tweets.”
Twitter’s Product Lead, Kayvon Beykpour, says the company doesn’t rank people based on politics or substance. You can read the tweet thread that he put up about this here. He said that Twitter was using a new algorithm that looks at “account behavior” and monitors the way that accounts are interacting with each other, in order to reduce trolling. One thing Twitter looks at is whether accounts are “targeting” their tweets at particular people. In other words, they look for “troll-like” behavior, such as launching multiple tweets, from multiple accounts, at a specific target, disrupting and drowning out other users who might be in the conversation.
Beykpour says that Twitter does not look at politics, or at the content of the tweet. He said they were only studying behavioral patterns, instead of looking at what tweets were actually about.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted, “It suffices to say we have a lot more work to do to earn people’s trust on how we work.”
Twitter Deleted More Than 70 Million “Suspicious Accounts” in May and June
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that Twitter had been suspending over 1 million accounts every day since May. That added up to more than 70 million accounts suspended in May and June. The suspensions were part of Twitter’s ongoing struggle to fight off “bots” and “trolls”. Twitter (and other social media platforms, like Facebook) came under a lot of pressure from Congress after allegations that Russian intelligence had used social media to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Twitter spokeswoman Del Harvey said the site had decided to suspend millions of users in an effort to improve “discourse” on the site. “One of the biggest shifts is in how we think about balancing free expression versus the potential for free expression to chill someone else’s speech,” Harvey said. “Free expression doesn’t really mean much if people don’t feel safe.”