‘Shadowbanning’, ‘visibility filtering’, ‘de-amplification’ – the Twitter Files released since Elon Musk took over have given us a new and sinister language of digital censorship. I am no fan of Musk’s capricious self-promotion. His vanity appals me and his vindictive attacks on former Twitter employees are gross. However, I credit him with telling us more about the inner workings of social media in two weeks than we learned in the last two decades.
As in a palace coup, there is often a moment of transparency before the next dictator takes over. Of course, the Twitter Files have to be taken with a high degree of scepticism. They are partisan to the extent that Elon Musk sees himself as a crusader against what he calls the ‘woke mind virus’. However, I am puzzled that mainstream journalists have shown so little interest in what the files have revealed about the internal culture of a hugely influential medium.
Even those commentators most critical of Musk, and the files, have been forced to concede there is clear evidence Twitter ‘enforced its terms of service in inconsistent and politically biased ways’. That is one way of putting it. The other is that this was arbitrary censorship by people who have lost the capacity to understand different points of view from their own.
Various devices were used to prevent wrong-think gaining traction on Twitter. Some accounts were placed on a ‘trends blacklist’ so that their tweets would not be seen even when they were securing thousands of engagements. Other individuals were shadowbanned, with their tweets blocked from appearing on followers’ feeds or in search. There was a whole armoury of what Twitter executives call ‘visibility filtering’ devices to suppress unacceptable opinions. This is William Gibson territory, or perhaps Black Mirror.
Twitter executives from Jack Dorsey down have long denied that shadowbanning existed and said all they did was remove Tweets that were illegal, threatening or racially abusive.