Twitter has come under fire from its users after installing mandatory content filters that cannot be switched off. The new system censors the newsfeeds of users without their consent, causing messages from followers and strangers alike to be automatically hidden from view if they fall foul of the filters. Many users have discovered that they are unable to see messages from long-time friends and followers, and are calling on Twitter to allow them to opt out of the new system.
I recently appeared on a segment of Huffington Post Live on the topic of social media censorship. I predicted, as I have done in previous articles, that Twitter will inadvertently limit open discourse on its platform if it reacts too strongly to concerns about abuse and harassment. With the recent introduction of a new content filtering system on the platform, it seems this prediction is coming true.
Users have begun to notice the effects of the new system, with some users only discovering that their timelines are being filtered after notifications from other users. It is still possible to find these posts by searching for your own mentions, but this provides an unnecessary hassle for users who were previously able to access all messages directed towards them without any issue.
There are also signs that Twitter’s new system is backfiring. Like all content filters, it has a problem accurately pinpointing genuine abusiveness, with non-abusive messages being filtered due to the presence of strong language.
There are merits to the idea of a voluntary filtering system. Some people have thin skins, and are upset by the sight of nasty language. Others have conditions which render them unable to deal with stress, and benefit from avoiding heated arguments. I’m generally in favor of encouraging people to develop thicker skins, but I also support the expansion of choice. There’s nothing wrong with developing a new filter, as long as it’s optional.
However, Twitter’s new filter is not voluntary, but mandatory. As explained here, the filtering software is “automatically on for all users and cannot be turned off”. This decision by Twitter is a restriction of choice, not an expansion, and reeks of paternalism. Instead of allowing us to decide for ourselves if we want to the rough-and-tumble of unmoderated online discourse, Twitter is forcibly wrapping us all in cotton wool.
Twitter users have taken to the platform to criticise the change, with many accusing the platform of treating them like children:
Hey @twitter we are not children. Can you please let us op-out of this idiotic filtering idea? @support
— synonymous_dreams (@synonymous_drea) May 7, 2015
Hey @twitter, can you make your abuse filter opt-in please? I don't need you to protect me from words that you think will hurt me.
— Bjork Lesnar (@yvalaresistance) May 7, 2015
what. there is a twitter filter?
>cannot be turned off.
welp. it was nice knowing you everyone.
— babyrocket Ὠ✨ (@rocketslime) May 7, 2015
— Angry Husky (@Angry_Husky) May 6, 2015
Ok so the @twitter filter is random. It's not protecting anyone from anything at all it's just causing confusion hiding random tweets.
— Nov. Birthday Girl Piper (@fyzzgiggidy) May 7, 2015
There may be more Twitter censorship on the horizon. Market analysts predict that as Twitter’s content detection technology advances, it will begin a massive purge, with some predicting a cull of up to 10million users who post pornographic and other NSFW (not safe for work) images. Of course, this prediction could be mistaken, and Twitter may instead follow of the examples of Tumblr and Google, two other tech giants that had to backtrack after attempting to ban pornographic content on their platforms.
Even on the question of online abuse, however, many argue that Twitter has taken a step too far. With mandatory content filtering, discussion on the platform is likely to remain sterile and sanitized, at least until Twitter makes the system optional. Human conversation does not flow well with too many rules, and Twitter’s great selling point is the openness of conversations on the platform. If the new system becomes too restrictive, the door is open for challengers like blockchain-based Twister, an anonymous microblogging platform currently in development.
It’s also worth wondering what this means for users in non-western countries. If Twitter had a content filter during the Arab Spring, would the online voice of the protesters have been muffled? Revolutionaries aren’t known for using polite language. And what about corporations? Are they to be protected from the righteous anger of the exploited masses, just because that anger isn’t expressed in moderate terms? There are already signs of this happening, with tweets like the one below being filtered for some users.
.@BP_America why don't you get your asses back to Pensacola beach and clean up your fucking tar balls. You pieces of shit.
— Chopper Dave (@UHOHCHOPPERDAVE) April 23, 2015
It’s ironic that tweets like this are being censored, as it was left-wing activists like Caroline Criado-Perez who helped generate the panic around “Twitter trolls” that led to Twitter taking this drastic step. Now, as many predicted, it is the powerful and the prominent who have become the first beneficiaries of censorship.
Follow Allum Bokhari on Twitter @LibertarianBlue.