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What? Twitter is “neutral”? A thoughtful engineer responds

Despite appearances, Twitter is not a conventional public square, but a private corporation
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This column by Texas State University engineering prof Karl Stephan is republished with thanks from Engineering Ethics (January 2, 2023)

Karl D. Stephan

Back when I started this blog in 2006, the phrase “social media” was hardly used by anybody, according to Google Trends.  It began to climb above 1% of its current frequency of use around 2008, possibly in connection with the elections of that year, and has been climbing ever since. 

Twitter, the social-media format that has become the default medium of choice for announcements by Presidents on down, was also founded in 2006.  From an obscure techie-speak term, it has turned into a routine and near-universal medium of expression that its leadership has claimed is as neutral as they can make it.  But a recent article by political scientist Wilfred Reilly details how the medium’s claim of neutrality is false. 

Specifically, in 2018, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey said, in response to accusations that the firm was silently suppressing or banning certain conservatives, that “We don’t shadow-ban conservatives — period.”  Similar assertions were made by company officials testifying before Congress and in other public venues.

How Twitter censors news it doesn’t want you to hear

Then along comes reporter Bari Weiss, who used Elon Musk‘s recently released Twitter files last month to demonstrate dozens of examples in which Twitter silenced or suppressed certain accounts. 

Weiss found a variety of ways Twitter can cripple the reach of a given account.  One way is by making the person unsearchable, which is more effective these days than the class of untouchables maintained in some cultures.  Encumbering tweets with warnings, suppressing the sharing of certain tweets — the list of technical means goes on and on.

As wonky as I am about engineering details, I’d like to pull back to examine a broader question:  has Twitter behaved unethically in (a) saying they don’t “shadow-ban” while clearly doing so, and (b) favoring some tweets and suppressing others?

We can dispense with (a) pretty quickly.  Unless Dorsey wants to play a Clintonesque definition game with the phrase “shadow-ban” (“It depends on what you mean by ‘shadow-ban.'”), it’s obvious that he and his corporate minions have lied repeatedly about how they treat certain accounts.  Companies lie about what they do for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it’s simple ignorance — nobody told the boss what was going on.  That seems hardly likely in this case.  Sometimes it’s a deliberate strategy to avoid public embarrassment and financial loss.  That would explain Dorsey’s behavior, certainly, and imagining what would have happened if he’d said, “Well, yes, we think we have a duty to the public to protect it from some opinions, and so we do shadow-ban,” I can see why a lie would be appealing. 

Reilly makes the point that we shouldn’t be surprised when we find that Twitter or any other social-media outlet shapes its content to suit its own purposes, whether those be profit, a desire to shape the political landscape, or other things perceived as of more value than telling the truth about what one is up to.  What is disappointing, if not surprising, is the ease and frequency with which Twitter lied about it, and the gullibility of much of the dominant media to believe them, and to criticize so-called conspiracy theorists for claiming that certain stories and outlets — the Hunter Biden laptop episode comes to mind— were intentionally suppressed.  Musk’s revelations of internal Twitter documents basically confirm many of these claims that were so scornfully dismissed before.

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What about (b)?  Regardless of whether they are honest about it, should Twitter mold and shape their content by hyping some tweets and squashing others?  And we shouldn’t limit the scope of the question to Twitter.  Facebook, search engines such as Google, and the whole megillah of social media and the way we look for information these days should be included in this question.

Most people would agree on certain outer limits to stuff that people post or tweet.  Blackmail, bullying, the lowest dregs of the human imagination — these things should not be allowed into the public arena.  The problem comes when you ask about the rest of what comes into a place like Twitter for potential publication. 

Strictly speaking, Twitter and virtually all other social media are private companies which are, and probably should remain, in control of what they publish.  Twitter is not like a public park, paid for with taxes and therefore available to any taxpayer who follows some basic rules.  It’s more like a private estate in that sense, where once you are allowed in on the owner’s terms, almost anything goes that doesn’t break the law.  There is no intrinsic right to express yourself on Twitter or any other private platform.

Why does the censorship matter so much?

The practical problem is that in replacing the old-fashioned print and one-way electronic media, social media have become the default public square.  Stuff that used to be announced in press conferences before cameras and reporters now gets tweeted routinely first, and press conferences come later, if at all. 

The legacy media repressed things silently too.  I can’t recall the details, but I remember reading about some reporters who showed up at the house of a prominent public official to ask him something.  His wife came to the door drunk as a skunk, and the code of behavior back then (this was in the early 1960s, I think) made them ignore her state and behavior, and they went away without any story at all.  These days, of course, a live video of her would go viral from the reporter’s phone, likely as not.

So the news that Twitter shapes tweets to suit itself isn’t really news in the sense of a radical new thing happening.  What needs to happen is that people who use social media — and for most of us, that means readers rather than the relatively few producers of viral tweets — need to be aware that everything is biased:  Twitter, Facebook, Google, the newspapers, and even emails from your friends. 

With your friends, you probably know them well enough to allow for whatever biases they bring to the table.  And with Musk’s revelations about Twitter, we are effectively learning more about Twitter’s personality — what things it likes and what things you aren’t likely to hear from it.  The bad part of this is that if you want to says something that Twitter doesn’t like, you are going to have to find another way to say it.  And that’s a problem, but as Reilly pointed out at the end of his article, there’s always dictionaries and encyclopedias, and I’d add snail-mail to that, too.

Sources:  Wilfred Reilly’s article, “The Conspiracy Theories Were Real, and Other Revelations,” appeared on the National Review website on Dec. 30, 2022.

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What? Twitter is “neutral”? A thoughtful engineer responds