In this digital age, social media has become a primary platform for the global exchange of ideas and opinions. This unlimited online freedom, however, provokes a need for some form of regulation. As a result, online spaces must work constantly to draw the fine line between protective community guidelines and outright censorship. In the past two months, Twitter has taken steps that allow staff to censor users in a subjective manner, by the creation of new guidelines and revealed attempts to “shadow ban” specific users.
In earlier years, popular sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and other media platforms had community guidelines for users that prohibited the sharing of violent, explicit, or illegal content. As expected, these rules served to protect copyright laws and prevent users from posting media in ways that would be considered illegal or objectively offensive in person. These rules have expanded to include prohibition of impersonation, spam, and the sharing of malicious links.
As of December 18th, 2017, Twitter initiated a new policy of safety rules that are strategically vague. Following the standard sections on Violence and Unlawful Use, Twitter has incorporated a section regarding “Abusive Behavior.” The section states that it believes in “freedom of expression and open dialogue.” However, this statement is immediately followed by a swarm of caveats, leaving the supposedly firm regulations wide open to subjective interpretation.
Because Twitter wants to ensure “people feel safe expressing diverse opinions,” anything that “crosses the line into abuse,” “intimidates,” or “uses fear to silence” a user can now be found in violation of Twitter’s policies. However, these rules are as open as they seem, since they give no measure of what exactly crosses the line of abuse or is intended to silence other users. In short, this is a method for Twitter executives to filter content with which they disagree.
On an online platform limited only by character count, simply feeling “intimidated” by a differing opinion should not be regarded in the same manner as assault, violence, or illegal activity. A recent Project Veritas video exposed a former and current Twitter software engineer explaining the process of shadow banning, a form of silencing that allows users to post content without realizing they are not reaching an audience. They confirmed the use of these tactics to suppress conservatives by searching through content for key words and phrases — which in the world of machine learning, is a simple feature to implement. And if you have the endurance to read through the miles of Twitter’s updated regulations, you will find this at the bottom:
Thus, the reveal of shadow banning tactics should hardly be a surprise. The nature of these new rules allows for filtration of dialogue based on opinion, something that Twitter executives and engineers should not be centering their focus on. As a result, an open space has become a means of silencing a group with differing worldviews by deeming them hateful or intimidating.
Because our technology-dependent society relies so heavily on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we must consider the risks associated with censorship of opposing ideas. While these companies are privately owned and have created their own mediums for news and information, they cross into an ethical grey zone that is legally tough to handle.
These corporations have expanded in recent years to form the main sources of news and media for our generation. Everything from friends and family to news and politics is available on sites like Twitter that allow us to get the full experience from a few scrolls on a single site. College students, who rely on social media for updates on world events, are especially impacted by decisions similar to Twitter’s. Instead of being exposed to multifaceted sources, social media sites are filtering content so that users have limited information to make their own decisions. In a way, the policy shows that these platforms fear other users may reach conclusions that are not entirely to their liking. It also exposes how these networks feel their users are incapable of distinguishing opinions they agree with from those they disagree with. Evidently, giving users the freedom to “block” and “Stop seeing posts like this” was not enough.
While media expressing unlawful content has no place on social media, Twitter has managed to skew a platform with millions of users, contradicting its own mission statement: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Skewed in either direction, the silencing of voices is nothing but an unethical, hypocritical impediment to improving progress and unity among our communities.
Twitter’s updated rules can be found here.