Twitter reportedly filtered out and censored certain tweets during a number of question and answer sessions on the platform, including President Obama’s in 2015, according to BuzzFeed.
“In 2015, then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo secretly ordered employees to filter out abusive and hateful replies to President Barack Obama during a Q&A session,” reports Buzzfeed.
According to these sources, the May 2015 #AskPOTUS town hall came out of Twitter senior leadership’s frustration with the fact that platforms like Reddit had become home to celebrity Q&As.
According to a former senior Twitter employee, Costolo ordered employees to deploy an algorithm (which was built in-house by feeding it thousands of examples of abuse and harassing tweets) that would filter out abusive language directed at Obama. Another source said the media partnerships team also manually censored tweets, noting that Twitter’s public quality-filtering algorithms were inconsistent. Two sources told BuzzFeed News that this decision was kept from senior company employees for fear they would object to the decision.”
It is reported that although best efforts were taken to ensure that some senior employees were not informed about the censorship, they ended up finding out anyway, which allegedly “upset” the employees who “strictly followed Twitter’s long-standing commitment to unfettered free speech.
These tactics were also reportedly used for Bruce Jenner’s AMA on the platform.
“This was another example of trying to woo celebs and show that you can have civilized conversations without the hate even if you’re a high-profile person,” said an unnamed source to BuzzFeed. “But it’s another example of a double standard — we’ll protect our celebrities, while the average user is out there subject to all kinds of horrible things.”
The censorship allegedly occurred during Dick Costolo’s reign as CEO of Twitter, though he resigned shortly after the Obama Q&A, leading to Jack Dorsey’s return as CEO.
During an interview with The Guardian, Costolo said, “I will say directly that I think regulation is a threat to free speech.” Two blog posts on the official Twitter blog were also made in 2011 and 2012, claiming “freedom of expression” to be “essential” regardless of the user’s views.
“Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential”, wrote Twitter co-founder Biz Stone in 2011. “Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”
In a follow up to the post a year later, Twitter’s growing acceptance to censorship started to become apparent.
As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.
Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.
Contrary to what sources told BuzzFeed, the blog post also claimed to not filter out any tweets that were published on the platform.
Q: Do you filter out certain Tweets before they appear on Twitter?
A: No. Our users now send a billion Tweets every four days—filtering is neither desirable nor realistic. With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request.
Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter in July for a minor spat with Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones after Twitter had been leading up to the suspension for months, starting with the removal of his verification mark and various other penalties.
Despite Twitter’s incessant push in censoring conservatives, libertarians, free speech activists, and anti-Islamist criticism, the platform has since refused to punish an account who sexually harassed and violently threatened a Breitbart contributor. Twitter also refused to take action after a GQ journalist expressed his desire to beat a Benghazi victim’s mother “to death” on the platform.
During July’s Republican National Convention, two Twitter executives refused to answer whether the platform believed in freedom of speech or not.
Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle and Milo Yiannopoulos went to Twitter’s stand during the convention in seek of an answer, however after being asked the same question over and over again for around eight minutes, neither executive would answer.
Former Twitter CEO Dick Costelo has since denied BuzzFeed’s allegations.
1/ Total nonsense and laughably false as anybody who would speak on the record would tell you. Absurd.
Not even going to link to it.
— dick costolo (@dickc) August 11, 2016
2/ shows a lack of understanding of the very basics of how trust and safety works at Twitter. Sensationalist nonsense.
— dick costolo (@dickc) August 11, 2016