Since President Trump took office, Republicans have accused social media platforms of bias against conservative users. But according to a new report from Motherboard, Twitter has avoided censoring white supremacists out of fear that it could impact the accounts of Republican politicians.
The report cites a March 22nd meeting at Twitter during which it was explained to attendees that accounts like those of Arabic language broadcasters may inadvertently be flagged in the course of the platform ridding itself of ISIS propaganda. Twitter hasn’t made the same commitment to rid itself of white supremacist content, the speaker later said in another conversation confirmed by Motherboard, because it could have a similar effect on the accounts of Republican politicians.
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) April 25, 2019
Twitter responded by noting to Motherboard that the report “is not [an] accurate characterization of our policies or enforcement — on any level.” The company later disputed the report in a statement. “The information cited from the ‘sources’ in this story has absolutely no basis in fact,” it read. “The characterization of the exchange at the meeting of March 22nd is also completely factually inaccurate. There are no simple algorithms that find all abusive content on the Internet and we certainly wouldn’t avoid turning them on for political reasons.”
As the report explains, Twitter took a broad, mostly algorithmic approach to eradicating ISIS-related content. To do so for white supremacist content would inevitably impact Republican accounts because of the extent to which white supremacist and white nationalist rhetoric has bled into American political discourse. “Cracking down on white nationalists will therefore involve removing a lot of people who identify to a greater or lesser extent as Trump supporters, and some people in Trump circles and pro-Trump media will certainly seize on this to complain they are being persecuted,” extremism expert and author JM Berger told Motherboard. “There’s going to be controversy here that we didn’t see with ISIS, because there are more white nationalists than there are ISIS supporters, and white nationalists are closer to the levers of political power in the U.S. and Europe than ISIS ever was.”
Twitter has already demonstrated a concern with being perceived as biased. On Tuesday, CEO Jack Dorsey met with Trump at the White House hours after Trump took to the platform to complain that “they don’t treat me well as a Republican,” that Twitter is “very discriminatory,” that it is “hard for people to sign on” and that it is “[c]onstantly taking people off list.”
Thank you for the time. Twitter is here to serve the entire public conversation, and we intend to make it healthier and more civil. Thanks for the discussion about that.
— jack (@jack) April 23, 2019
Multiple outlets reported that a significant portion of the meeting focused on Trump’s belief that he should have more followers than he does.
Last August, Dorsey drew criticism for his decision to apologize to conservative activist Candace Owens after a Twitter Moment labeled her a “far-right” personality. “Hi Candace. I want to apologize for our labeling you ‘far right,'” Dorsey wrote. “Team completed a full review of how this was published and why we corrected far too late (12 hrs after). There was a clear break in our curation process and understanding, and we’re fixing. Thanks for calling out.”
At a Turning Point USA event in London a few months later, Owens said Hitler’s ambitions were “OK” until he wanted to take them outside of Germany’s borders. “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine,” she said. “The problem is that he wanted — he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) played Owens’s comments at a congressional hearing in April meant to address the spread of white nationalism.
Hi Candace. I want to apologize for our labeling you “far right.” Team completed a full review of how this was published and why we corrected far too late (12 hrs after). There was a clear break in our curation process and understanding, and we’re fixing. Thanks for calling out.
— jack (@jack) April 27, 2018
The issue is admittedly a tricky one for Twitter, but few would argue the platform shouldn’t be doing more than it is to combat white supremacy. As NBC’s Ben Collins explained on Thursday, not only is it possible to be more proactive about curbing the platform’s white supremacy problem, it would benefit conservatives. “[There’s an] intentional conflation by a bunch of conservatives to say that white supremacist accounts and average Republican accounts are the same thing,” Collins said of conservatives who claim bias. “It’s just not true. There’s a way to delineate this, but you have to start going down that path. It should be in the interest of conservatives to try to make a delineation between white supremacist content and [conservative content].”
One prominent Republican politician whose account may be hard to distinguish from those of white supremacists is Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who has regularly promoted white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In January, House Republicans finally reprimanded King for his racism. This week, following Easter, King compared himself to Jesus for the persecution he was forced to endure as a result.
Like Trump, King has alleged that tech companies are biased against conservative voices. “There is a very strong conviction on this side of the aisle that the algorithms are written with a bias against conservatives,” he told Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a congressional hearing in December. “The people on the other side don’t agree with that, because of course, it benefits them.”