Tweets were secretly filtered out and censored for President Obama in 2015. Ahead of a “town hall” question and answer session, Dick Costolo — then Twitter CEO — reportedly ordered staff to develop an algorithm that would strip out abusive language directed at the President.
It was perfected after analysing “thousands” of vulgar tweets. Citing anonymous sources, the site says a media partnerships team also manually censored tweets, due to a belief that the algorithm wouldn’t be up to scratch.The decision to filter and censor #askPOTUS tweets, if true, would run counter to Twitter’s public position on free speech.
The company is, for the most part, a vocal supporter of freedom of expression — arguably to a fault, as a growing numbers of users call on the company to take a stronger, pro-moderation stance on harassment. (Twitter has admitted it needs to do more.)
What happened during Obama’s town hall was kept secret from “senior company employees,” as Costolo knew how they would react to the idea. Notably, Costolo stepped down from his position two months later, paving the way for Jack Dorsey’s return.
These actions are but one part of the company’s scattershot approach to handling harassment. On the one hand, Twitter is known as a place where users can speak only, publicly and honestly. On the other, those freedoms have attracted trolls, who know they can write terrible tweets and tag a user’s handle, guaranteeing their attention.
(Until they’re muted or blocked, that is.) Some of its biggest and most influential users — the people Twitter needs to keep in order to draw in new people — have been driven off the platform due to these vile comments.
The decision to secretly censor the tweets visible to President Obama is, therefore, an intriguing one. The algorithm was implemented temporarily — perhaps for no more than a day — to ensure the Q&A session went smoothly. Anonymous sources also told
The same algorithm was implemented during a Twitter debate with Caitlyn Jenner. One former employee described it as a “double standard,” protecting celebrities but leaving the average user to fend for themselves. “This was another example of trying to woo celebs and show that you can have civilized conversations without the hate even if you’re a high-profile person.”