On 2 January I woke up late to the sound of my phone buzzing continuously and a sense that something had gone badly wrong. The first message was from a friend. ‘Having a nice holiday?’ he wrote, above a screenshot of my political Twitter account covered in block letters: ‘Suspended.’ My reaction was to swear in just the way my dad does whenever he crashes his car.
Politics For All was a news aggregation service I started two years ago when I was 17. It took the most salient lines from news articles and posted them across social media, always pointing readers to the original publication. The aim was to engage a younger audience in politics by summarising stories in a more accessible way. It worked, amassing nearly 500,000 followers in around two years, 400,000 of those in the past eight months.
What started out as a hobby, born of my own interest in politics, ended up as a major Twitter account followed by hundreds of MPs, many cabinet ministers (including the Chancellor) and even the Prime Minister’s wife (more on her later). Sensing a demand for more accessible news, I built a small team of young people and we created offshoot accounts in football and more general news. We picked up an extra 300,000 followers on those within a few months.
During our final month, our tweets were seen nearly a billion times. I believe if we had not been shut down, this time next year we would have had more than five million followers across our network, overtaking any newspaper in Britain.
Then, at the start of this month, Twitter permanently suspended the ‘For All’ profiles on their platform. All that work, destroyed overnight. We were given no warnings, and no real explanation, just an automated email explicitly telling us not to reply.
Most people in Westminster seemed delighted. Some journalists had worried we were ‘stealing’ their content by publishing a summary of it. Others didn’t seem to mind. Senior journalists would even message asking us to help push their stories. But some publications claimed we were taking their clicks by not promoting their links in the original tweets. To me, this demonstrated a misunderstanding of the Twitter algorithm: it suppresses posts with links in them, as it wants to keep people on its platform rather than have them move on to another website. That’s why we’d always link to the original in a follow-up tweet.
A person from Twitter did eventually state that we had ‘violated their platform manipulation rules’ by ‘artificially amplifying or disrupting conversations through the use of multiple accounts’. But this can’t be the real reason. Many other publications do this all the time, without consequence. And if this were a problem, why not ask us to stop? We would have, immediately. Could there be something darker at play?
Sometimes I wonder. I turned down a mega offer to sell the network just weeks before it was taken down. We also gave the government a lot of grief. Stories of their mishaps or dodgy dealings that would have been buried on page ten of a newspaper were summarised and amplified by Politics For All, giving them a far bigger audience. We didn’t shy away from the most embarrassing stories, often to the fury of No. 10.
One night, while I was out clubbing, No. 10’s Director of Communications called me at around 11 p.m. threatening legal action for one of our tweets. It had read: ‘BREAKING: Boris Johnson has reportedly stated he is experiencing “buyer’s remorse” over marrying Carrie Johnson.’
I have no idea how he got my number. And I have no idea why he thought we’d delete the tweet: it was simply a summary of news reports elsewhere. But the threat was interesting in itself. As the saying goes: news is what someone, somewhere wants to suppress — and everything else is propaganda. On social media, perhaps you can define news as something No. 10 wants to delete. I know the PM’s wife paid attention to our page because a few months ago, at around 2.30 a.m., she briefly ‘liked’ one of our posts and then immediately unliked it. We saw.
I still think there is a reasonable explanation for why our accounts were taken down. I still hope Twitter will explain how exactly we broke the rules, and why they didn’t simply tell us what we were doing wrong.
I am proud of what my team achieved. We shook up the system and had a blast. And we debunked the myth that young people are bored by politics. If you present news in an engaging way, young people will read it — providing, of course, that Twitter gives them the chance.