By David Reaboi and Nick Short
Twitter does not discriminate against conservative viewpoints. That’s the story the social media giant desperately wants to tell — from their CEO Jack Dorsey’s interviews, to their employees tasked with outreach to conservatives in their Washington offices. Literally, it’s true. The complete picture, however, is less flattering to the social media giant.
Why are conservatives complaining? About a year ago, many of us on the political right saw impressions of our tweets drop precipitously — sometimes in the millions per month — while follower counts were increasing or remaining stagnant. With our visibility on the platform reduced, our ability to grow our Twitter presence has flatlined completely. Because of Twitter’s importance to the political debate in America, this is no trivial matter. Our ability to influence the debate in real-time has been squelched.
While it does not outright censor expressions of conservative views, Twitter has admitted to using a complex and opaque Quality Filter algorithm that has the effect of disproportionately restricting the voices of conservatives under the guise of limiting harmful or abusive users. Many Twitter users refer to this throttling as a “shadowban.” Rather than policing content per se — which would open Twitter to credible accusations of explicit viewpoint discrimination — the company focuses on accounts with certain behaviors that would trigger attention.
To some extent, this makes sense but, as always, the devil’s in the details. The Quality Filter algorithm consists of nearly 1000 behavioral signals about each user, regardless of whether the user has any actions considered by Twitter to be “abusive.” Many of the behavioral signals we know about are often used against conservatives in deliberate silencing campaigns. For example, far-left activists have long organized mass-blocking campaigns against conservative Twitter users using a tool called Blocktogether. While we don’t mind anyone blocking on their own timeline, a user being put on several popular blocklists counts as a serious Quality Filter strike against his account.
Users found to run afoul of this stew of behavioral indicators find their tweets’ visibility severely restricted: Their tweets do not appear in their followers’ timelines. It’s the social media equivalent of speaking to a suddenly empty room.
“The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone, but they don’t know they’ve been banned,” one former Twitter engineer told an undercover Veritas journalist. “They keep posting, but no one sees their content.”
The opacity of these all-important metrics means that, even if Twitter was dedicated to fairness and a rejection of viewpoint discrimination as company policy, ideologically committed employees could use their own metrics to decide which accounts to throttle.
We have been disappointed with Twitter’s lack of candor when discussing this issue. The social media company has acknowledged that some users’ visibility is affected due to Quality Filter penalties, it’s nearly impossible to pin down Twitter employees on the mechanics of what’s happening to so many conservatives who use the platform. Nearly all their answers are unsatisfactory or gaslighting. Rather than admit that we were possibly “shadowbanned” or had our tweets’ visibility artificially throttled, they suggested that our tweets were not being seen or shared because the content was bad or uninspired.
Despite this obfuscation from Twitter, the stifling of conservative speech on the platform is very real.
Many are, we believe, rightly supporting an effort by some lawmakers to require transparency and an internet “bill of rights” that would prohibit massive and ubiquitous tech companies from throttling the free expression of their users for ideological reasons. Americans from across the political spectrum are beginning to realize that unaccountable tech oligarchs are no better enforcers of political morality than a government censor.
But it doesn’t need to get there; Twitter can fix this problem very quickly by examining and eliminating the elements of the Quality Filter used by activists to mount mass attacks by viewpoint. We understand that some users on the political left may want a more curated experience on Twitter, where their interaction with any right-leaning voices would be severely limited. But they should not pressure Twitter to turn the most vibrant and popular forum for political debate in America into their own “safe space.”
Conservatives love using Twitter, but their patience in dealing with the throttling of their content’s visibility through Quality Filter “shadowbans” is wearing thin — and fast. Why waste time on a platform that artificially limits a conservative’s ability to take part in the political conversation?