President Trump said Thursday that Twitter was "SHADOW BANNING" prominent Republicans and hinted the government might investigate after Vice News reported the platform was limiting search results for conservatives but not liberals.
So... what is going on? Here are some answers:
What is shadow-banning?
Shadow-banning is the long-standing practice of making a user's content appear only to the user who posted it, making them think they're visible on a network though they're invisible to others.
Is Twitter shadow-banning prominent Republicans?
No. Twitter is not shadow-banning prominent Republicans. No users' tweets — Republicans or Democrats — have been hidden. Instead, what's happening is that certain users' handles are not autopopulating in Twitter's search feature when you begin to type their names.
Among some of the users are some left-leaning Twitter personalities, but also some Republican lawmakers, the spokesperson for Donald Trump, Jr., and Republican Party Chair Ronna McDaniel. This is not shadow-banning as it does not pertain to their content, only their visibility in search.
Why Is this happening?
According to Twitter, the issue of accounts not populating in search is a bug — one Twitter says it is actively working to correct. As a spokesperson for Twitter clarified to BuzzFeed News, once the bug is fixed, if you're directly searching for a specific user on Twitter — including both prominent Republicans and Democrats — their username will autopopulate like it used to. The fix appears to be geared toward making sure people can find what they're directly searching for.
Ok, so how did we get here?
The reason certain users' names stopped autopopulating in Twitter search is due to a new initiative — the rollout started in May — that's geared toward driving "healthy conversation" on the platform.
Essentially, Twitter is changing how accounts that are spammy, abusive, or behaving in a way that "detracts from healthy public conversation" appear in certain search settings, though they may still appear. Again, this is different from shadow-banning, which is censoring actual content.
On Wednesday, Twitter's head of product, Kayvon Beykpour, clarified that this isn't a partisan policy and that Twitter's algorithms don't look to distinguish between political parties. "Our behavioral ranking doesn’t make judgements based on political views or the substance of tweets," he said.
Twitter has not specified exactly all the signals it is considering, but many are designed at trying to spot unhealthy or trolling behavior. One metric Twitter uses, for example, is to look for accounts that repeatedly tweet and mention accounts that don’t follow them.
Beykpour said that the "breadth and accuracy" of the company's signal ranking "will improve over time" as its machine learning gets more advanced. "It’s important to note that these behavior signals are not binary, and they are one of many other signals that factor into ranking," he said.
Beykpour clarified that some of the signals the company used were accidentally making it impossible to search specific accounts. This is the bug the company is fixing.
So why did Trump tweet about this?
The president and other conservatives appear to be reacting to an article published Wednesday on Vice News that alleged "Twitter is 'shadow banning' prominent Republicans like the RNC chair and Trump Jr.’s spokesman." The story focused on lawmakers and prominent Republicans who had complained of being censored. The framing of the story suggested Twitter was not treating Democrats the same way it treated Republicans.
The piece caught the eye of many Republicans, who tweeted angrily about it. In recent months, a popular conservative talking point is that right-leaning figures are being censored by all the major tech platforms. Though the tech companies deny political bias, it has been the subject of a number of hearings in Congress.
Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about the Vice story 10 times in less than 24 hours. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted the story, adding, in all caps, "WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED. #StopTheBias."
Despite Twitter clarifying on Wednesday this censorship is actually the result of a bug, outrage from prominent lawmakers appears to have made its way from Twitter to Russian news outlets like Sputnik to Fox News and ultimately to the president, who tweeted it out, despite it being factually inaccurate.