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Donald Trump has jumped on the ‘shadow ban’ Twitter conspiracy theory

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Nothing brings a father and son together like a conspiracy theory, amirite?

Donald Trump and his lil’ son Jr. have jumped on the false narrative that Twitter is “shadow banning” conservatives. Let’s emphasize, right here, that this is a false narrative that Twitter has explained, and — most importantly — is consistent with the company’s stated efforts to root out trolling behavior. What the de-listing of certain conservative accounts means is that these accounts were behaving like trolls, according to Twitter’s automated behavioral monitoring. Not that Twitter was down-ranking and de-listing people on the basis of their ideology. UGH. 

But anyway. Trump *tweeted* to his 53.3 million followers, without a touch of irony, that Twitter is “shadow banning prominent Republicans,” and said that this is “discriminatory and illegal.”

DTJ got in on the fun, following dad’s lead, and then some.

Donald Trump Jr., he memes.

DTJ retweeted this Tweet with the VICE article that added flames to the fire.

Speaking of flames + fire, here’s how all of this made its way to the president and his forehead slope of a son.

On Tuesday, Gizmodo reported that Twitter seemed to be de-listing some prominent conservatives and conspiracy theorists from the search bar. That means that when a user typed in the Twitter handle of Pizzagate narrative pusher Mike Cernovich, he wouldn’t come up in search results.

Then, VICE published an article giving this phenomenon a name — SHADOW BANNING! It pointed out that Twitter was de-listing prominent conservatives like DTJ’s spokesman and the Republican Party chair from search, but not their Democrat equivalents. 

And of course, giving something a sexy name that implicates conservative victimhood is all this phenomenon needed to go all the way to the top of this trash heap of a news cycle. Note the *Info Wars* link.

Now, let’s rewind to May. This spring, Twitter unveiled its first concrete initiative in its fight to improve “conversational health” on Twitter. To make Twitter a less combative hellscape (and less vulnerable to Democracy-disrupting trolls), it developed tools to identify “trolling behavior,” most of which it says are not visible at a glance. It would then de-list and down-rank the accounts and comments of the users it identifies as those who exhibit trolling behavior. Here’s Twitter’s explanation for what it’s looking for.

There are many new signals we’re taking in, most of which are not visible externally. Just a few examples include if an account has not confirmed their email address, if the same person signs up for multiple accounts simultaneously, accounts that repeatedly Tweet and mention accounts that don’t follow them, or behavior that might indicate a coordinated attack. We’re also looking at how accounts are connected to those that violate our rules and how they interact with each other.

Twitter’s tests of this tactic were… actually promising! In test markets, it saw a 4 percent drop in abuse reports from search, and 8 percent drop from comments. 

So when Gizmodo pointed out that Twitter was de-listing certain “conservative voices,” Twitter responded that what they were seeing was part of the initiative that it had began testing in May. The fact that it was de-listing the likes of Mike Cernovich showed that the tools were… actually working. 

And if prominent Republicans were falling prey to the same automated fate, it was evidence that they were engaging in trolling behavior that’s not necessarily visible to the average Twitter user.

Twitter also stressed that it was not de-listing on the basis of political views — just behavior.

What comes next is actually flabbergasting. Twitter announced that it was “making a change” that would result in re-listing certain conservatives. But also said that their accounts were consistent with “trolling behavior.” Take that in: Twitter simultaneously stated that its initiatives were working, but then reversed the effects of its conversational health initiatives! It essentially said that if conservatives make enough noise — even if these accounts ARE harmful — it will back off from its troll hunt. Twitter removed the teeth from its “trolling behavior” initiative, which is a setback for Twitter that gives into the “shadow banning” narrative.

VICE added an update to its article: “Twitter appears to have adjusted its platform overnight to no longer limit the visibility of some prominent Republicans in its search results.”

Twitter’s conversational health initiatives are likely far from perfect. For one, Alex Jones, troll and conspiracy theorist Numero Uno, is still showing up in Twitter search.

But the “shadow ban” narrative gives in to an incendiary message of conservative victimhood that distracts from the real issues of how these platforms have been co-opted by trolls and foreign actors to negatively impact our nation and democracy. As with Twitter’s backtracking here, social media companies have not done enough to counter this “conservative silencing” narrative — instead appeasing conservatives to show just how unbiased they are.

Let’s forget that nothing about what Twitter is doing is “illegal” or “discriminatory,” as the President of the United States called it. Let’s forget that Twitter (and Facebook, for that matter) are not actually “banning conservative voices.” 

Instead, we should remember — with every conservative appeasement, and with every limp “news transparency” initiative — that these platforms are still not doing enough to truly fight trolls and fake news on the beasts of their own creation. Jack still hasn’t banned the Nazis.

And it’s just not good enough.

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