Donald Trump won the presidential election, but the complaints about social media companies’ bias against conservatives that marked the 2016 campaign have not abated.
The latest charge is the purge by Twitter of accounts managed by members of the so-called “alt-right,” which the company justified because of alleged hate speech, abuse and harassment in the sharply-divided political climate.
Meanwhile, the Hamas-sympathizing, Israel-hating Muslim Brotherhood received Twitter’s validation as a legitimate and acceptable account.
And according to some conservatives whose accounts have been suspended, Twitter has looked the other way when it comes to those on the Left who have bullied conservatives. An example discovered by USA Today was a California college student, Ariana Rowlands, who said she received personal attacks and death threats after Tweeting about her pride in her Hispanic heritage and her support for Trump. She said she reported the posts, but Twitter did nothing about the abusive account holders.
“I want to stress that it’s not like we’re crying victim or anything like that,” she told the newspaper. “It’s just that we’re pointing out the double standard.”
Among the “alt-right” accounts shut down by Twitter was Richard Spencer, who runs a think tank called National Policy Institute, which is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” Tweeters critical of the move – who were not aligned with Spencer’s views – wrote, “I’ve never seen Richard be anything but respectful on Twitter,” and that the think tank “was completely tame.”
Other prominent conservatives – not considered the “alt-right” – have also found fault with Twitter. Actor James Woods, who had more than 485,000 followers with engagements via Tweets numbering in the millions, announced he would end his activity on the site.
“Since @Twitter is now in the #censorship business,” Woods posted on November 17, “I will no longer use its service for my constitutional right to free speech. #GoodbyeAll.”
And cartoonist and author (but not conservative) Scott Adams, creator of the popular daily comic strip “Dilbert,” has slammed Twitter for intentionally diminishing the amount of traffic his posts received via a practice known as “shadowbanning.” Adams blogged prolifically about the presidential race over the past several months and endorsed Hillary Clinton in June because he lives in liberal California and said he felt endangered if he did not. But in September he switched to Trump because he admired his charisma and influence.
“Some of you watched with amusement as I endorsed Hillary Clinton for my personal safety,” Adams wrote on his blog. “What you might not know is that I was completely serious. I was getting a lot of direct and indirect death threats for writing about Trump’s powers of persuasion, and I made all of that go away by endorsing Clinton.”
Adams also reported in mid-October that many of his more than 110,000 followers told him that Twitter was “shadowbanning” him, which meant that his Tweets did not show up in their newsfeeds. He also noticed in October that the number of followers on a live stream he was conducting on Periscope (Twitter’s streaming app) inexplicably fell from over a thousand to nothing, even though plenty were still engaged with him online.
“If one political party can use the machinery of social networks to reduce free speech,” Adams wrote, “that is an attack on American values at the deepest level.”
In February Breitbart editor and frequent college campus speaker Milo Yiannopoulos cited a source inside the company who confirmed that Twitter practiced “shadowbanning.” Yiannopoulos himself was banned completely by the site in July.
And Twitter even rejected a lucrative ($5 million) advertising deal with Trump, in which emojis (which are cartoon character symbols) co-designed by the company’s and the campaign’s design teams would accompany a “#CrookedHillary” hashtag. According to reports, Twitter had agreed to an emoji depicting a hand receiving a bag of cash, but then after redesigning it to depict a stick figure running away with a cash bag, the deal was rejected. Twitter, which told the Trump campaign its decision only days before his first debate with Clinton, said its excuse was that “they couldn’t accuse someone of committing a crime they did not commit or were no under investigation for” and “they claimed to fear litigation from Hillary Clinton.”
“To me, this was clearly a BS reason that was made up to give them an out,” said Gary Coby, Trump’s director of digital advertising, on Medium.com. “I was also confidentially told from [Twitter] staff that the running stick figure emoji reached Adam Bain, COO, and he personally put a stop to it.”
Coby said Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was ultimately responsible, and in a conference call attempted unsuccessfully to ease the campaign’s unhappiness with the decision. Coby said he then cancelled subsequent planned campaigns.
There is evidence that Tweeters have sought ought alternatives. Breitbart reported in September that the social network Gab.ai, which has set itself up as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter and is still in beta testing mode, has drawn tens of thousands (last check had the number over 185,000) to sign up on a waiting list.
Meanwhile Twitter is suffering in credibility and probably as a result, financially. The company restructured in October and cut nine percent of its staff, after suffering a net loss of $103 million in the 3rd quarter. When you make your money in the trade of speech and opinion facilitation, it’s clear that censorship is bad business.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.