President Donald Trump sent out an angry tweet on Thursday morning deriding a practice by Twitter of “shadow banning.”
Specifically, the president was upset about the social media site targeting conservative Republican accounts. Trump promised that his administration “will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once!”
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
Trump’s rhetoric here is somewhat hypocritical — his own communications team literally banned a journalist from covering an event at the White House yesterday — but “shadow banning” is a real problem, according to a report from Vice News, although the social media site maintains it does not purposely engage in the practice.
"We are aware that some accounts are not automatically populating in our search box, and we’re shipping a change to address this," the company said in a statement.
As of this morning, Twitter turned the algorithms off that some described as a shadow ban, meaning the topic is moot at this point. Still, it’s important to try to understand what was happening, and to understand it wasn’t entirely the site’s fault.
So, what exactly is “shadow banning?" It’s not as nefarious as it sounds. Nobody is actually banned from using the platform, but it does affect how individuals are found in the site’s search bar.
In an effort to weed out accounts that engage in troll-like behavior, Twitter set up its algorithms to try to weed out users who engaged in certain behaviors. The specific parameters may have been set too high or targeted in the wrong direction — they may have missed many individuals who deserved it entirely. Users like Alex Jones weren’t affected by the so-called shadow ban, for instance, but RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was. As a result, searches for “McDaniel” would limit people from being able to find her account.
What kind of actions warranted such a move? Twitter itself said the algorithm wasn’t based on tweets but other behaviors. That probably includes “retweets” and “likes” on the site, and glancing around at some of the “likes” that some conservative accounts that were allegedly shadow banned were making, it makes sense why some of the mistakes were made.
For instance, McDaniel herself liked a tweet from an account user named @Adianis16. The “liked” tweet wasn’t anything controversial itself, but @Adianis16 is a user who frequently tweets the hashtag #WalkAway. That specific hashtag is one that is knowingly used by Russian bots, who are using it to try to dilute support for the Democratic Party.
McDaniel also “liked” several tweets from actor James Woods, who is disseminating hateful and ill-informed tweets on a daily basis.
Similarly, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) also liked some accounts that engaged in trolling. For example, he “liked” a tweet from user @dummycratsmovie, an account that frequently derides and trolls Democratic politicians. The account is tied to a blog site that also twists the words of Democrats, reading into phrases like “expand the electorate” to mean allowing undocumented immigrants to vote, a notion that no Democrat is advocating for.
To be sure, whatever algorithm was in place on Twitter probably went too far. The company recognized the mistake and corrected it.
Conversely, Republicans aren’t innocent in this affair. The algorithm, which was announced in May, was intended to weed out troll-like behavior on the platform. If Republicans don’t want to see their accounts affected by similar algorithms in the future, they ought to consider not clicking “like” on accounts that are abusive or troll-like.
That means these accounts, and other users across the entirety of the political spectrum, may have to be more discerning when it comes to what tweets they like or retweet. It may require Republicans to take some “personal responsibility” for what they do on social media, a trait they frequently say we need more of in America (but don’t seem too keen on practicing themselves, it turns out).
If they’re not willing to take that responsibility, then perhaps they should rethink whether they want to have a presence on social media in the first place.