Conservatives were enraged last month when activist James O’Keefe published a series of undercover videos purporting to show Twitter engineers boasting of their ability to “shadow-ban” far-right users, or hide their tweets from appearing online. Those claims were quickly debunked, but fears that Twitter—an alleged bastion of Bay Area liberalism—is censoring conservative speech runs deep. They resurfaced on Wednesday, when several prominent right-wing users complained that they’d lost thousands of followers overnight, while others claimed to be locked out of their accounts. “Looks like thousands of Twitter users committed the thought crime of tweeting about ‘God,’ ‘the American flag,’ and ‘guns,’ were taken off the platform,” O’Keefe tweeted. “Our undercover reporting into Twitter showed those terms indicate to engineers you are ‘for sure a bot.’”
By Wednesday morning, #TwitterLockOut was trending, with outraged conservatives accusing the company of singling them out in what appeared to be a mass purge of suspected Russian bot accounts—the vast majority of which follow and amplify other pro-Trump voices. “The twitter purge is real,” tweeted frequent Fox News commentator Dan Bongino. “I woke up and saw I lost 100 or so followers,” columnist Adriana Cohen wrote. “First time that’s ever happened. Are Conservatives being targeted like the IRS”? Michael Flynn Jr., the son of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, declared that the company was “censoring” conservative accounts.
Twitter, of course, contests that it’s targeting anything except spam and automated accounts. “Twitter’s tools are apolitical, and we enforce our rules without political bias,” the company said in a statement to the Hive. “As part of our ongoing work in safety, we identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse.” If an account is believed to have violated its terms of service, the spokesperson added, Twitter may ask account owners to “confirm a phone number so we can confirm a human is behind it. That’s why some people may be experiencing suspensions or locks.” Conservative pundit Bill Mitchell seemed to confirm as much later Wednesday morning:
The most unusual thing about the purge is that it happened at all. As my colleague Nick Bilton has reported, Twitter has long known about its fake-follower problem, but in typical Twitter fashion, has made few moves to combat it. Twitter’s “dirty secret” is that it has few incentives to get rid of bots, which help pad its user and growth numbers, and keep its stock price afloat. (Last year, researchers estimated that bots comprise 9 to 15 percent of all users on Twitter, although the company disputes this.) So while Twitter occasionally takes action—deleting more than a million fake followers after a New York Times exposé, for instance—the underlying problem remains unaddressed. If there is a product fix to authenticate users, it’s likely tangled in red tape. “Inaction has always plagued Twitter,” a former Twitter executive told me, describing the company’s struggle to combat spam and abuse. “We were good at identifying problems, but implementing fixes to them, just getting everyone who needed to sign off on a solution on board, was another story.”
If Twitter is finally addressing its bot problem, even in a limited capacity, that’s good news for its users and for the legitimacy of the company itself. Still, it begs the question: why now, and not a year ago? Part of the answer may be the heightened consciousness around the issue of election meddling: less than a week ago, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Russian nationals for trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an effort that included a major social-media component. But the opaque, haphazard way that Twitter has gone about targeting Russian and other fake accounts seems to be alienating its conservative users.
Renewed fears of censorship have once again led some users to talk about leaving to join Gab, the so-called free-speech social network that cropped up in 2016 as an alternative to Twitter. And Gab couldn’t be more pleased. Utsav Sanduja, the company’s chief operating officer, told me on Wednesday that the company had seen “a surge of donations, Gab memberships, [and] user sign-ups” since Tuesday night. Sanduja says he estimates thousands of new members had come on board, including more mainstream conservatives than the fringe crowd that has gravitated to Gab in the past. And he predicts more defections to come. Gab will address the purge during its presentation at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this week, Sanduja said, adding, “We expect to have a lot of inquiries about this.”