Less than a week after a House committee questioned social media companies about censorship on their platforms, reports surfaced Wednesday that Twitter was “shadow banning” prominent Republicans.
On Wednesday, Vice reported that search results on Twitter “shadow banned” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman, and “several conservative Republican congressmen,” including some who had questioned Nick Pickles, a senior strategist for Twitter, on July 17.
The shift “diminishes their reach on the platform — and it’s the same one being deployed against prominent racists to limit their visibility,” according to Vice.
Twitter is doing so by omitting those conservative figures from its auto-populated drop-down search, the tool most users employ when looking for content. Twitter has not completely scrubbed the conservatives in question, merely taken them out of the most circulated streams.
The social media giant is not taking the same proactive steps to diminish the visibility of Tom Perez, Mrs. McDaniel’s counterpart at the DNC, or prominent Congressional Democrats such as Reps. Maxine Waters and Joe Kennedy III, among others, Vice reported.
The House Judiciary Committee’s Republican members had pressed executives with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube about whether they had taken internal steps to marginalize conservative voices on their platforms, a claim the panel’s Democrats had insisted was a fairy tale.
The committee could not be reached immediately for comment.
In a statement to Vice, Mrs. McDaniel said, “the notion that social media companies would suppress certain political points of view should concern every American. Twitter owes the public answers to what’s really going on.”
A “shadow ban” is a term used to refer to lowered visibility on the internet. It does not involve the removal of a person’s or organization’s posts to social media, but surreptitiously limits the dissemination of those posts to the wider community.
Twitter has said some users no longer appearing in the drop box appear to have been caught up in a move it made to try to limit bad information and sketchy sources, as the social media giant defines those terms. In some media accounts Wednesday, tech analysts blamed the faulty, fledgling technology rather than intentional partisan bias for the exclusions.
But privately, some GOP officials pointed to the fact only a handful of conservative lawmakers seem to have been hit by the shadow ban, and in particular representatives who have been harshly critical of the sprawling investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller into purported collusion between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian operatives.
If an algorithm were employed to look at, say, all congressional accounts, it would appear a bizarre and unlikely coincidence it would shadow ban only four: those of Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Devin Nunes of California.
In Mr. Nunes’ case, his verified account is not included in the drop box but rather an unverified account which he rarely uses remains.
At the July 17 hearing, social media executives testified their platforms were still jiggering with the ideas of banning or limiting posts, which is usually done when they are rated as hateful or violent. The Vice report noted that the conservatives who appear only in the more onerous full searches are in a similar position to “prominent racist figures on the alt-right.”
After the Vice report, a statement from Mr. Gaetz’s office said he was “aware of claims that Twitter has discriminated against multiple accounts maintained by Congressman Gaetz,” it said.
“It is curious that these allegations would arise the week following Congressman Gaetz’s heated exchange with Twitter senior executives before the House Judiciary Committee. Congressman Gaetz continues to believe that interactive computer services, such as Twitter, should not discriminate against content while simultaneously asserting that they are a nonbiased public forum under federal law,” the statement said.
Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s head of product, used his account to post a thread of tweets Wednesday afternoon to deny his company was shadow-banning conservatives.
“Our behavioral ranking doesn’t make judgements based on political views or the substance of tweets,” he wrote.
But he also acknowledged that the company had “started using behavioral signals and machine learning to reduce people’s ability to detract from healthy public conversation on Twitter.”
He said the problem of not finding names even when you searched for them was a side effect of this.
“We’re making a change today that will improve this,” he said, though the very phrase “healthy public conversation” pricked up conservatives’ ears.
“We don’t want you to ‘drive healthy conversation’ we want a platform to discuss with people across the world in any way that we choose,” replied user “OldRowSwig.”
Other dissenters noted that death threats from Occupy Wall Street and rape jokes from actor Peter Fonda didn’t cause their accounts to be revoked or shadow-banned, which would affect their ideological allies “downstream.”
“Yeah here is the thing. Thats a BS response. Your machine didnt grab Peter talks about raping kids Fonda and get him out of the search results but it got me? I follow the rules but I say conservative things. Not believable,” said blue-checked Christian journalist Carmine Sabia.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and CEO, linked to Mr. Beykpour’s thread and said “it suffices to say we have a lot more work to do to earn people’s trust on how we work.”