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July 27, 2018, 9:21 a.m.
Audience & Social

Twitter’s not “shadow banning” Republicans, but get ready to hear that it is

Plus: Infowars’ Alex Jones is suspended from Facebook, eyes on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, and anti-vaccine Facebook groups.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

This is gonna be a thing now, isn’t it. Platform makes effort to remove false or unreliable content. Some accounts are more affected than others. Platform is accused of censoring conservative speech. Sound familiar? It should, but this time it’s Twitter being accused.

Vice politics editor Alex Thompson claimed this week that “Twitter is limiting the visibility of prominent Republicans in search results — a technique known as ‘shadow banning’ — in what it says is a side effect of its attempts to improve the quality of discourse on the platform.” From the original post:

The Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel, several conservative Republican congressmen, and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman no longer appear in the auto-populated drop-down search box on Twitter, VICE News has learned. It’s a shift that diminishes their reach on the platform — and it’s the same one being deployed against prominent racists to limit their visibility. The profiles continue to appear when conducting a full search, but not in the more convenient and visible drop-down bar. (The accounts appear to also populate if you already follow the person.)

Democrats are not being “shadow banned” in the same way, according to a Vice News review.

“This isn’t evidence of a pattern of anti-conservative bias since some Republicans still appear and some don’t. This just appears to be a cluster of conservatives who have been affected. If anything, it appears that Twitter’s technology for minimizing accounts instead of banning them just isn’t very good,” New York Law School professor Ari Ezra Waldman told Thompson. But the article frames it as a pattern of anti-conservative bias anyway.

Vice’s story has been criticized by a number of prominent tech journalists who fear that it will lead to the same kind of manufactured controversy we saw around Gizmodo’s reporting on Facebook Trending topics in 2016, in which some former Facebook contractors claimed that members of their team had “routinely suppressed” conservative content in the Trending Topics module (which finally shut down earlier this year). The story was quickly picked up by Republican members of Congress and then, on Thursday, Trump. Republican Congress, Donald Trump Jr., and then Trump himself.

Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour addressed Vice’s claims in a thread.

This was never “shadow banning,” Brian Feldman wrote for Select All.

This is a side effect of a minimal measure designed to make sure that people aren’t preemptively encouraged to consume bad information from dubious sources. In May, Twitter announced that it would do what it could to ensure ‘people contributing to the healthy conversation will be more visible in conversations and search’; it seems eminently likely that an algorithmic strategy to make trolls and extremists less visible on the platform semi-accidentally ensnared some Republicans. (And can you blame it?) As HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg pointed out on Twitter, well-known left-wing podcast hosts — surely, in the grand scheme of things, around the same level of “prominence” as Don Jr.’s spokesperson — are suffering from the same “problem” of being marginally more difficult to be searched out…

Vice’s story feels an awful lot like one reported two years ago by Gizmodo, which claimed that Facebook was “suppressing conservatives.” In reality, Facebook’s editors were making the editorial judgment call that manufactured, misleading, and hyperpartisan stories from conservative outlets — such as ones about Benghazi, in 2016 — were less relevant to Facebook’s users than breaking stories from mainstream outlets. Similarly, Twitter’s new system seems less about suppressing conservative viewpoints and more about minimizing controversial figures whose primary tactic is to stoke outrage through heavy slant or outright distortion.

In an update Thursday morning, Thompson wrote, “Twitter appears to have adjusted its platform overnight to no longer limit the visibility of some prominent Republicans in its search results.” He also wrote a new post. He doubled down on the decision to publish the post.

Facebook suspends Infowars’ Alex Jones for 30 days. Facebook is kicking Alex Jones, the operator of far-right site Infowars and propagator of conspiracy theories like Sandy Hook being a hoax, off the platform for 30 days. (See previously: Debate over why Facebook hasn’t deleted Infowars’ page completely.) From CNET’s Steven Musil and Sean Hollister:

The social networking giant said late Thursday it had banned the right-wing conspiracy theorist from using his account for the next 30 days after removing four videos from the network it said violated its community standards. A Facebook spokesperson also said if Jones or his fellow admins continue to break its rules, his page faces a permanent ban from the site.

The 30-day ban affects Alex Jones personally, not his fellow Infowars page admins, meaning his “The Alex Jones Channel” will stay on Facebook for now and his colleagues can continue to post unless they break the rules as well. A Facebook spokesperson said the entire channel is close to the threshold that would justify his page being permanently removed, though.

The move comes a day after YouTube removed some of Jones’ videos and suspended his ability to broadcast live on YouTube for 90 days.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is (reluctantly) hiring a fact-checker. Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness site, has made a number of false health claims. Bras cause breast cancer, jade eggs fix your vagina, and so many more, all heroically debunked here by OB-GYN Jen Gunter. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes this week for The New York Times Magazine about Paltrow and Goop. Brodesser-Akner writes about how Goop’s partnership with Condé Nast fell apart, in part because Paltrow didn’t want to follow “rules” like fact-checking:

The thing couldn’t be fact-checked. Goop wanted Goop magazine to be like the Goop website in another way: to allow the Goop family of doctors and healers to go unchallenged in their recommendations via the kinds of Q. and A.s published, and that just didn’t pass Condé Nast standards. Those standards require traditional backup for scientific claims, like double-blind, peer-reviewed studies. The stories [Elise] Loehnen, now Goop’s chief content officer, wanted to publish had to be quickly replaced at the last minute by packages like the one on ‘clean’ getaways.

G.P. didn’t understand the problem. “We’re never making statements,” she said. Meaning, they’re never asserting anything like a fact. They’re just asking unconventional sources some interesting questions. (Loehnen told me, ‘We’re just asking questions.’) But what is ‘making a statement’? Some would argue — her former partners at Condé Nast, for sure — that it is giving an unfiltered platform to quackery or witchery. O.K., O.K., but what is quackery? What is witchery? Is it claims that have been observed but not the subject of double-blind, peer-reviewed studies? Yes? Right. O.K., G.P. would say, then what is science, and is it all-encompassing and altruistic and without error and always acting in the interests of humanity?

Goop’s website gets 2.4 million viewers a month. And “after a few too many cultural firestorms, and with investors to think about, G.P. made some changes. Goop has hired a lawyer to vet all claims on the site. It hired an editor away from Condé Nast to run the magazine. It hired a man with a Ph.D. in nutritional science, and a director of science and research who is a former Stanford professor. And in September, Goop, sigh, is hiring a full-time fact-checker. G.P. chose to see it as ‘necessary growing pain.'”

And while we’re talking about the spread of false health information… Here is yet another reminder that all fake news isn’t political. Will Sommer writes for The Daily Beast about the spread of anti-vaccine groups on Facebook.

Facebook groups and pages devoted to promoting vaccine skepticism rank at the top of Facebook searches for vaccination-related terms like “vaccines,” helping those groups spread false claims that vaccines cause autism and the like.

The top results for vaccine information on Facebook, for example, returned “anti-vaxx” groups with names like “United Against Vaccines,” Vaccines Injury Stories,” “Vaccines Exposed,” and pages related to opposing mandatory vaccination rules.

The groups and pages push a hard line against vaccinations, often paired with pictures of babies and needles. The groups often include memes claiming that doctors don’t learn enough about vaccines in medical school to be trusted.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

POSTED     July 27, 2018, 9:21 a.m.
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