Legacy media outlets have been insisting for years that Twitter has not been covertly suppressing conservative accounts. After the release of the second iteration of the Twitter Files, the world learned that those outlets had been thoroughly duped, even as they sneered at conservatives for bemoaning the evident censorship.
Journalist Bari Weiss shared on Thursday evening that the social media company built blacklists, prevented disfavored tweets from trending on the platform, and actively limited the visibility of entire accounts and even trending topics without telling users. Former company bosses such as founder Jack Dorsey, chief executive Parag Agrawal, and head of legal Vijaya Gadde collaborated to censor multiple popular conservative accounts. The latter two executives were dismissed after Elon Musk took over the company several weeks ago.
For years, however, Twitter executives had insisted that no such censorship had taken place. “People are asking us if we shadow ban. We do not,” a blog post from 2018 co-authored by Gadde herself claimed. Dorsey answered with a simple “No” when asked by commentator Dave Rubin in 2020 whether the company shadow bans “based on political beliefs.”
The only entities which spread the outright lie more fervently than Twitter itself were legacy media outlets.
The New York Times claimed in a 2018 article that the controversy over shadow banning was based on semantics, insisting that the practice only refers to algorithmically shutting down traffic due to the content on a given page. “Is Twitter shadow banning Republicans? No, it is not,” correspondent Liam Stack declared in reaction to an article from Vice News which found that the platform limited search results when users looked for prominent conservatives on the platform. The Gray Lady then amplified a statement from Twitter provided to Vice — “As we have said before, we do not ‘shadowban’” — and mocked Republicans such as RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) for feeling “vindicated” by the report.
The agent of the suppression was not an impersonal algorithm, but zealously censorious executives. Weiss found that some accounts, such as the one belonging to talk show host Dan Bongino, were slapped with a “search blacklist.” Twitter likewise placed a “do not amplify” directive on the account of conservative activist and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. Weiss determined that Twitter executives had also been playing semantic games, preferring the term “visibility filtering” to the more widespread term “shadow ban.”
Meanwhile, a similar article from ABC News said that “President Donald Trump seized upon the claim and contended that such a move constitutes illegal discrimination, even as the company and digital experts defended the platform and pointed to faults and misunderstandings in the story.” A third piece from Intelligencer — simply entitled “Twitter Is Not ‘Shadow Banning’ Republicans” — argued that the notion of the shadow ban “has persisted among the conspiracy-minded, as a great weapon of censorship, generally thought to be perpetrated by liberal Silicon Valley operatives at the expense of conservatives.”
Another article from The Verge contributing editor Casey Newton explicitly advised Twitter to “ignore the phony outrage” over shadow banning. “A consequence of covering the intersection of social media and democracy is that sometimes you wind up having to discuss things that are very dumb,” he wrote. “And yet how Twitter reacts to the attendant criticism could determine whether the company ever gets a handle on the abuse its platform is so well known for.”
An analysis from CNN Business published in 2019 whined that Twitter had even increased the reach of “extreme political rhetoric” from conservative accounts, including Kirk, one of the influencers who was manually targeted by the platform’s executives, as revealed by Weiss.
“There is some irony to the amplification of these right-wing voices,” CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote. “Trump and other prominent Republicans have long accused Twitter of ‘shadow banning’ users with conservative viewpoints, an accusation Twitter has strongly denied. In reality, not only is Twitter not ‘shadow banning’ these right-wing personalities for their political viewpoints, the platform’s algorithm is actually amplifying some of their tweets to audiences who do not even follow their accounts.”