Nov 7, 2017

Twitter tests free speech as it tries to police content

From left: Blackburn, Stone and McGowan, each of whom had their accounts policed by Twitter. Photos: AP

Twitter has been clamping down on accounts that it feels violates its policies with the content they post or promote.

Why it matters: The social media giant has lately been more aggressive about policing content it says is in violation of its policies. But in doing so, Twitter has faced criticism for judgment bias against free speech. It's a tough line all web platforms have to walk in the era of fake news and indecent content that spreads like wildfire online. Twitter seems to be testing the waters to find the appropriate balance more than other social platforms.

The latest

  • A campaign announcement ad from U.S. Senate candidate and Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn's account was taken down because it contained "an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction." Blackburn's ad said she "stopped the sale of baby body parts." The fallout: Blackburn responded with a tweet calling on her supporters to "[stand] up to Silicon Valley." Facebook said even it wouldn't have gone so far as to remove the ad. "When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for other people," COO Sheryl Sandberg told Axios' Mike Allen in October.
  • Twitter banned ads from Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik over concerns about election meddling. "This decision was based on the retrospective work we've been doing around the 2016 U.S. election and the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that both RT and Sputnik attempted to interfere with the election on behalf of the Russian government," the company said in a blog post. The outlets may still use Twitter, but can't advertise on it. The fallout: The two Kremlin-backed outlets fired back, arguing that they did nothing that warrants their rights to be removed.
  • Search results for some LBGTQ-themed terms, including both "bisexual" and "queer," were temporarily blocked on Twitter's platform over the weekend, per Axios' Ina Fried. Twitter declined to comment beyond a vague tweet that said it had "identified an error with search results for certain terms." This isn't the first time Twitter has been confronted for blocking LGBTQ-themed content.The fallout: Jim Halloran, chief digital officer for GLAAD and former head of global content management at Twitter told Axios: "This is not the first time innocent LGBTQ content has been wrongfully blocked on Twitter. Yet each time we see band aid fixes that ignore the root of the issue. Not only does Twitter need to fix the biases in their code once and for all, but they must do a better job of responding quickly to LGBTQ users."
  • Actress Rose McGowan's account was suspended for twelve hours after she tweeted a series of posts about the Harvey Weinstein assault allegations. Twitter said she violated their rules, according to a screenshot McGowan posted on her Instagram page. She wrote, "TWITTER HAS SUSPENDED ME. THERE ARE POWERFUL FORCES AT WORK. BE MY VOICE."The fallout: McGowan sparked a Twitter boycott among activists, journalists, celebrities and others. CEO Jack Dorsey promised "a more aggressive stance" to deter harassment and protect speech, in an effort to defuse #WomenBoycottTwitter, per Axios' Mike Allen
  • Former Trump advisor Roger Stone's account was suspended after he posted "expletive-laden" tweets about several CNN journalists, NYT reports. The account is not back up as of Monday evening. Twitter told Mike Allen that it doesn't comment on individual accounts, but pointed to "Abusive Behavior" language in its policies: "Harassment: You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others." The fallout: Stone promised legal retribution, telling Mike, "I was told by Twitter that [I] would be suspended for 3 hours. I was told the suspension was temporary. At the end of this time-out period my Twitter feed remains suspended without explanation. I have never been informed formally by Twitter that I am permanently banned."

One more thing: President Trump's Twitter account was down for 11 minutes last week, sparking an immediate reaction among users. Twitter has said its preliminary investigation shows Trump's account was deactivated by a customer support representative on their last day of work at Twitter, and later said it had put in place "safeguards" to prevent it from happening again.

The backdrop

Many want tech platforms to use more humans to review content — but humans, and human-trained algorithms, are biased too. And Twitter isn't the only tech company that's in hot water over issues of censorship. For example:

  • LGTBQ users cried foul on YouTube last month for flagging a wide swath of PG video content in its restricted mode
  • Facebook received blowback for removing a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the "Napalm Girl" which famously features a small, naked girl panicked in front of Vietnamese soldiers.

Be smart: All of these companies are in lose-lose situations. If platforms don't filter their content, advertisers may not feel that their environments are brand-safe enough to run ads, and regulators could argue they're not doing enough to combat indecent or misleading information. If they do filter their content, they risk being blamed for judgement bias.

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