If it’s tough to find conservatives on Twitter, it’s because Twitter is making it tough to find them. And Donald Trump wants to do something about that — even if it’s just venting. As John wrote yesterday, Vice News decided to investigate complaints by Republican officials that Twitter has “shadow-banned” them, screening their accounts out from search results, making it difficult for other users to follow them. Lo and behold, it turns out not to be a conspiracy theory but the actual truth:
The Republican Party 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 it’s 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.)
Twitter tried brushing this off as an algorithm problem, but as Vice News’ Alex Thompson discovered, the bug never seems to bite Democrats and progressives:
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 situation in Twitter’s search.
Building algorithms to deal with issues of hate speech and Russian bots (which do have some overlap) is a difficult task, but this appears to be something very different. A buggy algorithm by itself wouldn’t impact only one side of the political spectrum; the errors would be spread more randomly across the user spectrum. This appears to be a feature, rather than a bug, with a particular target.
It’s so particular that Trump wants it investigated immediately as a “discriminatory and illegal practice”:
Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Discriminatory? Certainly, but everyone engages in discriminatory conduct, which essentially means making values-based choices. The word only has meaning in a legal sense when the discriminatory conduct disadvantages members of protected classes in certain kinds of transactions.
This case wouldn’t qualify for a federal investigation even if it’s being done unethically. There are a host of laws and regulations at the federal level prohibiting discriminatory conduct in certain kinds of transactions, but none of those relate to access to or performance within social media. Even in the areas of federal regulatory oversight, political affiliation is not a protected class.
That’s not to say that Twitter shouldn’t have to explain itself to its customers and to its shareholders. Their claim that this shadow-banning is a bug is ludicrous on its face. But that kind of pressure should come from its consumers and investors, not from federal investigators wandering far from any legal or regulatory mandate.
And hey, Trump is one of Twitter’s biggest consumers, both in followers and in output, so Trump’s tweet certainly raises the profile of Vice’s conclusions and therefore increases that pressure on the platform to explain itself. That’s good, but let’s not start demanding Big Brother tactics to deal with it. We’re far better off exposing Twitter’s executives as free-speech hypocrites rather than turning them into free-speech and Leviathan-government martyrs.