Numerous users are reporting their negative tweets criticizing United Airlines’ abusive behavior have been vanishing into of thin air – and nobody seems to know why.
While Twitter has previously hidden tweets containing offensive messages from showing up in other people’s timelines as part of its efforts to curb abuse on its platform, deleting tweets against users’ wills goes firmly against the company’s rules.
This sort of moderation is more commonly known as ‘ghost-deleting.’ The term is a little misleading since such tweets are technically not deleted, but merely prevented from appearing in users’ feeds. This measure, however, is usually reserved strictly for offensive tweets – and this is hardly the case here.
There have been many stories about Twitter doing things like this, but it’s hard for those of us outside the company to know what’s really going on. We can’t see Twitter’s databases, only guess as what they might contain by viewing them through different accounts and clients and by watching those views change over time.
Some reported incidents may be misunderstandings or attention-seeking, but there seems to be enough smoke that there’s some sort of fire. Is Twitter censoring for business or political reasons? Are people or bots falsely reporting the tweets as abusive? Are there bugs in Twitter’s anti-harassment algorithms? What kind of evidence could one gather to even investigate this? At the most basic level, if one of my tweets really were censored, I don’t there’s a way I could prove that to you.
It’s all complicated by the fact that the alleged manipulations are more subtle than outright deletions. First, there’s the ghosting and shadow-banning. I have also seen certain hashtags that were trending excluded from auto-completion, which I guess is a way of stopping them from trending without actually manipulating the trending list. It has been alleged that Twitter does that, too, though. When the United story was blowing up, it sure seemed like #United and #UnitedAirlines were popular, but they didn’t show up in the Trends list for me, while the seemingly less popular #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos did. But who’s to say which one was actually more popular or whether some algorithm thought one was more tailored to my interests?
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