Twitter Tried to Curb Abuse. Now It Has to Handle the Backlash

Conservative activist James O’Keefe has returned. In a series of illicitly filmed videos with current and former Twitter employees, the right-wing provocateur claims to have exposed partisan bias at the social network. The offensive may have been inevitable. While O'Keefe's Project Veritas has mostly focused on the media and liberal institutions, recent moves by platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to more aggressively moderate user content have left them exposed them to this exact sort of attack.

The Project Veritas videos, filmed without apparent awareness or consent, show a range of selectively edited insights from inside Twitter. One engineer for the company says that Twitter would theoretically comply with a Department of Justice investigation into Trump’s Twitter account. Another video shows a series of current and former employees explaining "shadowbans," a practice by which Twitter will sometimes make it more difficult to find and view a user's tweets, rather than banning that person outright. And a third, released Monday, explains how the company tracks user behavior and screens direct messages for prohibited content, like porn spammers and unsolicited dick pics.

Many of the employees filmed used sensational language, but they also thought they were talking candidly to strangers at a bar. It’s not exactly unusual to embellish your job—and to elide its nuances—to a potential new friend or romantic interest.

The right-wing backlash against tech giants has reached a new height.

And in any case, none of these gotcha moments amount to anything revelatory. Tech companies comply with valid legal investigations all the time; if anything, Twitter has historically taken a relatively hardline stance against federal intervention. Shadowbanning is such a closely guarded secret that Twitter details the practice in its easily accessible online Help Center. Tracking is how Twitter—and every free platform online—sells ads. And Twitter employees don't read every single direct message sent on the platform—an insurmountable task—but the company does screen instances in which abusive behavior is reported.

These videos don't prove that Twitter has a partisan bias against its far-right conservative users. (Indeed, they're some of its most prolific users.) They do show, though, that the right-wing backlash against tech giants has reached a new height. With every new policy intended to curb abuse, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms invite rancor. The new rules have been necessary to fight an increasingly toxic atmosphere online. But Project Veritas sees those steps, and the ban of high-profile far-right users—over clear, apolitical terms of service violations—as an attempt not to improve discourse online but to quash the free exchange of ideas.

The Mounting Backlash

O’Keefe’s videos quickly became the top story on sites like Breitbart over the past week, and Fox News host Sean Hannity discussed them on national television. The videos also put Twitter on the defensive, despite uncovering a whole lot of nothing.

“The individuals depicted in this video were speaking in a personal capacity and do not represent or speak for Twitter,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a predetermined narrative.”

But to a large segment of right-wing internet users, the videos' substance doesn’t matter. The way they were filmed matters even less. The footage validated a deep-seated suspicion that social media companies treat conservatives differently.

In one sense, critics are right to say that Twitter has treated its users differently lately. In December, the social media platform rolled out a series of aggressive policies meant to curb abuse and the glorification of violence. When the new rules took effect, a number of far-right accounts were suspended, including the anti-semitic Traditionalist Worker Party and the American Nazi Party.

Removing hate groups from Twitter has been a net good. But deciding whether a user violated these new policies sometimes involves making a subjective decision. By giving up what Twitter saw as absolute neutrality—former executive Tommy Wang famously once described the company as "the free speech wing of the free speech party"—Twitter and other platforms have opened the door to specious claims of bias.

Twitter and companies like it often don’t—or can’t—explain exactly how their services work, leaving users to craft their own conspiracy theories.

It's not just O'Keefe. The first Project Veritas Twitter video debuted just two days after “alt-right” troll Chuck Johnson filed a lawsuit against the company. In 2015, Twitter permanently banned Johnson after he tweeted that he wanted to “take out” civil rights activist DeRay McKesson. While Johnson likely won't win his case, it's significant that he chose to sue now and not three years ago, when Twitter first suspended his account. The narrative has shifted in his favor.

The so-called alt-right also isn’t only mad because some of their most prominent voices—including Johnson and Milo Yiannopoulos—have been banned. Even those that remain on the platform often allege that Twitter suppresses their views through other means.

After last year's presidential election, for example, some users said when they tried to respond to Donald Trump's tweets, their replies disappeared. It turned out that Twitter likely couldn’t handle the volume of replies that Trump generated, and thus the threads were “breaking” by accident.

The incident highlighted how Twitter and companies like it often don’t—or can’t—explain exactly how their services work, leaving users to craft their own conspiracy theories. It doesn't help, either, that every major tech platform is headquartered in notoriously liberal Silicon Valley, leaving right-wing users to suspect that few tech employees care much about advocating for their viewpoint.

Take also another incident from last summer, when Google fired James Damore, a former software engineer who penned a 10-page memo advocating against Google’s diversity hiring programs. Damore argued in part that biological differences between men and women accounted for gender disparities in fields like software engineering. He was let go for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

Right-wing news sources held up Damore's firing as evidence that Silicon Valley doesn't welcome conservatives. Damore appeared on Fox News, and Breitbart started a “Rebels of Google” series, where it interviewed former and current employees about partisan bias. Far-right groups even planned a “March on Google,” that never materialized. Damore is now suing Google, alleging that the company is systematically biased against caucasians, males, and conservatives.

Damore's firing wasn't the smoking gun that right-wing media made it out to be. For one, the engineer was only one employee, and others have written memos alleging that the company doesn't do enough to promote diversity, rather than too much. Damore also said that Google gave special privilege to women, but the company is currently wrapped up in a dispute with the Department of Labor over "systematic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce."

Doubling Down

As pressure against these platforms continues to mount, the most instructive case for Twitter might be the one that has the most merit. A 2016 Gizmodo investigation found that Facebook’s “news curators,” who were in charge of managing Facebook’s Trending Topics bar, had systematically suppressed stories from conservative outlets. The story immediately caused a massive backlash from right-wing users.

Instead of making an earnest, if flawed, commitment to filtering out untrusted sources, Facebook instead fired its entire Trending team, and let an algorithm take over. The trending bar soon filled with fake news and conspiracy theories. Facebook shied away from making its platform a better place in the name of neutrality, and everyone suffered as a result.

So far, Twitter has done the opposite. In the face of persistent backlash from the right, the company has doubled down on its intention to curb abuse and threats of violence. It hasn't made a public show of firing moderators, or claimed it wants to be entirely neutral. Good. To improve their platforms, companies ultimately have to make value judgements that lots of people won't like. The question now is whether Twitter's convictions can survive the backlash.

Social Media and Speech

-Should Facebook and Twitter be regulated under the First Amendment?

-How WeChat Spreads Rumors, Reaffirms Bias, and Helped Elect Trump

Read more: