Following an apparent change to Twitter’s auto-populating search dropdown first discovered by Gizmodo over the weekend, the platform has responded to a wave of angry, uninformed criticism on its official blog.
While Gizmodo’s findings indicated the platform had made it slightly more difficult to discover the accounts of known bad-faith actors, this unannounced change was grossly misunderstood when aggregated by VICE News, which framed the new search behaviour as a purely partisan issue. VICE irresponsibly pronounced this minor alteration a “shadow ban”—a term that describes an imagined fear within far-right circles that platforms like Twitter are artificially limiting the reach of their content for solely political reasons.
Outlets like New York Magazine pushed back against that description. Still, the furore created by imagined platform bias travelled all the way to the Twitter-addicted and conspiracy-minded US president.
Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
In its explanatory post, Twitter more narrowly defines a “shadow ban” as “deliberately making someone’s content undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it, unbeknownst to the original poster.” The platform claims not to engage in such actions. As to the events of the last few days, Twitter wrote:
Yesterday, we identified an issue where some accounts weren’t auto-suggested in search even when people were searching for their specific name. To be clear, this only impacted our search auto-suggestions. The accounts, their tweets and surrounding conversation about those accounts were showing up in search results. As of yesterday afternoon, this issue was resolved.
Twitter further contends that “hundreds of thousands of accounts” from all parts of the political spectrum were impacted by this issue. The specific issue of Republic representatives, Twitter believes, “had more to do with how other people were interacting with these representatives’ accounts than the accounts themselves.” Given Twitter’s recent push towards “conversational health,” that might be a nice way of saying fans of these accounts tend to disproportionately act like jackasses.
The platform has not yet addressed if this fiasco was caused by a bug or an intentional feature deployed poorly. We’ve reached out for comment and will update when we hear back.
Featured image: Richard Drew (AP)