Some myths about Twitter censorship

Claims of political persecution may be good for influencer branding, but they don't always have a basis in reality.

Twitter censorship is both more and less extensive than our discourse would have you believe. More, because Twitter’s most consequential form of censorship by far — its blue-check system, which is deliberately designed to promote some voices and suppress others — is one that works to the advantage of our loudest pundits. Similarly, Twitter has been banning figures on the anticapitalist left for years, particularly those who are critical of US foreign policy; but our discourse simply doesn’t talk about this because our discourse is dominated by capitalists and imperialists.

And yet at the same time, our discourse has also become overrun with claims about censorship that just don’t have much basis in reality. The problem seems to have become particularly acute among right-wing influencers: if you want to grow your audience and bring credibility to your content, one of the best things you can do is claim that your tweets are being censored by some unholy alliance between leftists and Twitter.

Obviously Twitter does take action against right-wing accounts on occasion, just as it does with everyone else, particularly when they are doing things that no one is allowed to do (like making threats). But if you look closely at the specifics of particular incidents, it’s clear that there is a lot of bullshitting going on, and that it often relies on the same handful of myths about how Twitter censorship works.

So without any further throat-clearing, I’d like to take on some of them here.


MYTH 1: ACCOUNTS HAVE PRIVATE KNOWLEDGE OF WHO HAS BEEN REPORTING THEM

As a rule, bullshit claims of censorship almost always include allegations that the victim has been reported by a certain person or group of people. This is extremely convenient for brand-building, of course, because it lets you position yourself as a dangerous rival of some out-group villain.

But in fact, accounts almost never have any private information about who has reported them. The only exception to this, as far as I can tell, is if someone makes a copyright claim on material that you’ve posted; in that case, Twitter is obligated to include the name of the claimant with the DMCA notice. And even this isn’t really private information; all of these notices are easily accessible in public databases if you know where to look.

In general, if a supposed victim of censorship makes claims about who has reported them, they should always be able to point to public proof of this, like (for example) tweets where someone calls for people to mass-report a particular account. But this never happens; instead, what we usually get is extremely convenient blind speculation presented as established fact.

MYTH 2: POLITICAL ACCOUNTS ARE ALWAYS SUPPRESSED FOR POLITICAL REASONS

Yes, sometimes political accounts are censored because they said something that Twitter thinks is politically incorrect. And sometimes they are censored because political opponents have taken advantage of some apolitical technicality, like when critics mass report someone for copyright infringement.

But just like everyone else, political accounts also run into problems on Twitter that have nothing to do with their politics. A friend of mine, for example, is often locked out of her account simply because it’s shared by two people from two different countries; evidently, Twitter just detects the drastic change in location and figures that something screwy is going on. Personally, I noticed an extended lull in my engagement while I lived in Ukraine that didn’t disappear until I moved back to the US and changed my location back to a US city. I suspect that Twitter’s algorithm makes it more likely that you’ll see someone else’s tweet if they live in the same country, which can create problems like this but that also makes a certain amount of sense.

MYTH 3: TRAFFIC LULLS MEAN CENSORSHIP

One recurring genre of complaint I’ve seen goes like this: an account notices that their growth in followers has slowed down, or that their engagement isn’t as high as it’s been in the past, and from here they decide this can only mean that they’re being quietly shadowbanned.

There are of course all kinds of alternative explanations for such things. One is just that for whatever reason, Twitter traffic to any given account seems to rise and fall like a wave, with periods of fast growth and high engagement followed by periods of decline. This has been my experience over nearly a decade of posting and I’ve seen little to no relationship with content.

Another explanation is just that people generally have a limited audience for the kind of posting they do; you may start scooping up that audience quite quickly if you’re relatively unknown, but as you approach your ceiling you’ll start to run into limits that just reflect what people are interested in. If you’re an ambitious mainstream Democratic poster who spends all of their time tweeting about Republican hypocrisy or posting inflammatory Fox New clips, for example, you should be able to pick up 50,000 followers pretty easily, and your ceiling is probably in the 200k range. If you have a blue check you should have no problem hitting 80,000 followers and your ceiling can easily be in the one million range, particularly if you are connected to a large corporate outlet.

None of this necessarily implies sinister intervention by the mods. But the standard assumption, of course, is that one’s account should always grow at the same or an increasing rate, and if there are any adverse trends can only imply censorship.

MYTH 4: TWITTER CENSORSHIP IMPLIES DIRECT INTERVENTION BY POWERFUL ACTORS

Ordinarily, it is not simply enough to claim that one’s Twitter account has been censored for political reasons. Along with that, the complaint is almost always that one has been censored by Powerful Critics; if you say something critical of the left and Twitter gives you a temporary suspension for it, this can only mean that Silicon Valley oligarchs, the Democratic Party, and whatever other big institutions and online celebrities one wants to implicate were directly involved.

But as a matter of fact, it seems that most political suspensions involve the same two groups. On one hand, there are Twitter cliques associated with just about any political tendency you can name who are quite open about their ongoing efforts to get their rivals banned. And this is almost always an expression of their powerlessness; since they are small accounts with very little media access or connection to more consequential forms of activism, they have settled into the role of Twitter police. These groups are usually completely open about their efforts to report people, and even their tactics are pretty well known: they look for a tweet that they can construe as a Terms of Service violation, and then issue a call for people to report it.

On the other hand, meanwhile, the actual administration of the censorship is typically carried out by some combination of automated flagging systems and low-level mods who spend their shifts routing an endless stream of reports. Situations like the Trump ban are the exception, not the rule; ordinarily, upper and even middle management are only involved insofar as they set and approve broad guidelines for moderation.


These are just some of the myths floating around in the discourse about Twitter censorship, but they are, in my view, some of the most egregious. When someone claims that they being silenced or suppressed by Twitter, this is always worth taking seriously; but it is also worth asking, of course, if there are less sinister explanations, or if there is any real evidence for what they are saying, or if it’s to the advantage of their media brand to make such claims. And it’s also worth asking if, taken altogether, these claims of censorship are giving us an accurate picture of what political censorship online actually looks like. As noted in the beginning, the most serious and consequential forms of censorship on Twitter are ones that our discourse rarely even acknowledges as a problem.