Social media platform Twitter may be trying to reshape the online narrative by editing out conservative voices, a new undercover video released by Project Veritas alleges.
Screen capture from YouTube
The video, released Jan. 11, appears to show current and former Twitter engineers explaining how they “downrank” some users and make others totally invisible if they don’t like what they are saying. Baptist leaders shared different views on the significance of the undercover video – with one saying the report shouldn’t prompt concern, while another called the video “deeply troubling.”
To make users invisible, Twitter uses a technique called “shadowbanning,” which means users are blocked but don’t know it, according to the video that apparently shows Abhinav Vadrevu, a former Twitter software engineer, on the undercover video. Shadowbanned users can keep posting, the video noted, but only their followers will be able to see their tweets or find them in search results.
“They just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it,” the video shows Vadrevu saying during a Jan. 3 dinner with James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas, a group of conservative investigative journalists.
Shadowbanning was created to deter fraudsters and scammers, but it can be easily abused, the video reported.
It’s a method that’s kept quiet, Vadrevu said, because “it’s a lot of bad press” if people figure it out, because it’s “unethical in some way.”
A second censorship method uses a vast series of algorithms that scans content for specific words and then blocks, mutes or prioritizes certain tweets accordingly, the video reported.
That method is not new, but it’s becoming even smarter, according to Twitter software engineer Steven Pierre, who was reportedly filmed Dec. 8. In the video, he said he was working on a secret project that involved machine learning, or algorithms that teach themselves how to solve problems.
“Every single conversation is going to be rated by a machine and the machine is going to say whether or not it’s a positive thing or a negative thing,” Pierre said.
In a tweet where the user is “cursing at somebody,” for instance, the user “may have a point, but it will just vanish,” he said. “It’s not going to ban the mindset, it’s going to ban, like, a way of talking.”
Others apparently interviewed in the undercover video, such as former Twitter engineer Conrado Miranda and direct messaging engineer Pranay Singh, affirmed that some of the users targeted by the censorship methods were Trump supporters, conservatives and Republicans. And Mo Norai, a former Twitter content review agent, agreed on camera that much of the company’s censorship on those topics was subjective.
But Twitter pushed back on the allegations, saying that those interviewed in the video were speaking in a “personal capacity,” not an official one.
“We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a pre-determined narrative,” a statement from the company read. “Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”
The company also denied that it used shadowbanning, although it did say it took actions “to downrank accounts that are abusive.”
Darrel Girardier, digital strategy director for Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn., said he doesn’t believe there is cause for alarm.
“I believe that some conservative Christians follow the narrative that social media organizations are ‘out to get them,’ whether this is devaluing Christian conservative content through Facebook’s newsfeed or Twitter’s timeline,” Girardier said. “In general, I don’t find this narrative to be true. In fact, majority of the time I find the opposite to be true.”
While there might be some instances where this type of censorship happens, Girardier said he thinks that overall it would be “disadvantageous” for Twitter to conduct business this way.
“Their entire model is built on you, the user, building an ecosystem of content that you like and enjoy,” he said. “That’s what keeps you engaged. Simply put, it’s an eyeball game. The more eyeballs on their content, the more ads they can sell. So for them to downgrade content because it’s from a conservative Christian outlet would in effect hurt their business model.”
But Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters, called Project Veritas’ video report “deeply troubling” and “tragic.”
“If true, it underscores the reality of a growing problem that must be faced,” he said. “Online censorship of Christian and conservative viewpoints is the reason we launched Internet Freedom Watch to catalog and bring greater attention to these threats, challenge Silicon Valley to uniformly practice its professed commitment to free speech, and explore possible public policy options that may exist to address the loss of internet freedom.”
See related report. The IFW website, InternetFreedomWatch.org, collects reports from individuals and organizations about their own experiences of online censorship.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Grace Thornton is a writer in Birmingham, Ala.)