Alex Thompson, Vice news, July 25, 2018
Twitter is limiting the visibility of prominent Republicans in search results — a technique known as “shadow banning” — in what it says is a side effect of its attempts to improve the quality of discourse on the platform.
The Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel, several conservative Republican congressmen, and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman no longer appear in the auto-populated drop-down search box on Twitter, VICE News has learned. It’s a shift that diminishes their reach on the platform — and it’s the same one being deployed against prominent racists to limit their visibility. The profiles continue to appear when conducting a full search, but not in the more convenient and visible drop-down bar. (The accounts appear to also populate if you already follow the person.)
Democrats are not being “shadow banned” in the same way, according to a VICE News review. McDaniel’s counterpart, Democratic Party chair Tom Perez, and liberal members of Congress — including Reps. Maxine Waters, Joe Kennedy III, Keith Ellison, and Mark Pocan — all continue to appear in drop-down search results. Not a single member of the 78-person Progressive Caucus faces the same situation in Twitter’s search.
Twitter directed VICE News to a May 15 blog post that explained the company’s new approach to combating “troll-like behaviors.” After making changes to its platform, the company said that “[t]he result is that people contributing to the healthy conversation will be more visible in conversations and search.”
Twitter’s troll hunt, however, has ensnared some of the most prominent Republicans in the country. Type in the names of McDaniel, conservative members of Congress like Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, and Matt Gaetz, and Trump Jr.’s spokesman Andrew Surabian, for example, and Twitter’s drop-down search bar does not show their profiles. The search menu also does not display the verified profile of Rep. Devin Nunes of California, only his unverified one that he seldom uses to post.
That limits their visibility and the ease of finding their profiles compared to their liberal counterparts.
The company’s drop-down search bar has also been excluding several prominent racist figures on the alt-right, such as Jason Kessler, who organized last year’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The platform has also demoted a smattering of far-right figures like Mike Cernovich, as Gizmodo reported earlier this week.
But the rationale determining which accounts auto-populate in search results and which don’t is unclear. InfoWars and its leader Alex Jones have not been demoted despite often spreading false news and right-wing conspiracy theories, for example. Republican Rep. Steve King — who has tweeted that immigration should be limited because “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” — also appears to be unaffected by this change to the company’s search function. He retweeted a self-proclaimed “Nazi sympathizer” last month and declined to take it down when notified of the person’s history.
Conservatives in and out of Congress have been claiming for months — with varying amounts of evidence — that Big Tech companies are censoring voices on the right. The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee convened not one but two hearings on the subject in recent months, including one with pro-Trump social media stars Diamond and Silk, who argued that Facebook had been intentionally diminishing the reach of their content. The second hearing went down just last week where representatives from Twitter, Google, and Facebook were subjected to grilling by conservatives.
Democrats, for their part, have largely rolled their eyes at conservative claims of discrimination. At Diamond and Silk’s hearing in April, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat Jerrold Nadler called the idea of Big Tech censorship of conservatives a “hoax” and a “tired narrative of imagined victimhood” that was eclipsing other priorities like election security and online privacy.