Anyone that knows me knows that I tend to read on all sides of an issue. And that I often hold unorthodox opinions on political issues in particular that straddle lines or thread needles as a result of trying to understand issues from the perspective of both sides of the “political tendency” aisle. I was pro-Gore, for example, in 2000, but at the same time pro-Bush when it came to the court cases. I voted for Obama, but later did not support Hillary, even as I also didn’t support Trump.
I’m not, that is to say, an ideologue, but rather try to understand and judge issues after seeking clarity from all sides.
Until today, I’ve not known what to think about the “social media censorship” debate. Conservatives have long claimed that they don’t get a fair shake, with progressives claiming that what’s being blocked or removed is largely hate speech. I didn’t have a strong opinion in either direction, I suppose, and continued to read arguments from both sides without having been convinced.
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This week, I’ve been following the goings-on in Parliament int the U.K. regarding Brexit. The last couple of days have been particularly eventful, and I’d taken to reading hashtags on both sides of the aisle on Twitter to get a read on the perspectives on both sides from the British public.
What I got instead was an education on Twitter and social media censorship.
Pro-Brexit hashtags, including innocuous ones making no threats, showing no profanity, etc. have been simply disappearing, while the same is not true of pro-remain hashtags.
This morning, I tried to check in on several hashtags on both sides that had been seeing a large amount of activity over the last 24 hours. When it came time to look at the pro-Brexit sentiment, what I saw instead were blanks. No tweets for those hashtags. We’re talking a shift from thousands and thousands of tweets and active discussion to—nada.
I moved from the mobile client to a desktop browser session and searched again. I got a tiny handful of stale posts from several years ago. Everything more recent had disappeared. Simply gone. The pro-remain hashtags? Still incredibly active and deep.
I sat there in stunned silence for several minutes.
I don’t know whether the tweets in question have been removed, or the accounts, or neither and it’s simply that Twitter search is blocking searches for that keyword and returning no recent results. But I do know that actual work had to be done to hide these discussions, which were not hateful, not violent, not white nationalist, not racist, etc. Just politics and regular people voicing their opinions.
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Where I stand on the social media censorship issue is thus evolving: it does, in fact, happen sometimes. And conservatives are right in saying that at least in some cases, it happens rather blatantly to conservatives. Interestingly, famous figures on that side of the aisle remain there and remain searchable.
This implies some amount of bad faith—the platform doesn’t want the public to realize that censorship is happening, which they surely would if very famous figures (i.e. Farage) started to disappear. No, this is a kind of stealth censorship—one that makes it look as though one side of the aisle has very little, if any, support, while making it look as if the other side of the aisle enjoys incredible popularity and support.
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I don’t really know what to do with this information. I do know that I feel as though my eyes have been opened.
I had long ago changed my previously very sunny opinion about social media—the one that I’d held throughout much of my time in graduate school and as an academic. Since then, I’d come to realize that social media was much more a mixed bag, much more dubious, and much more problematic than I’d at first imagined, largely because of the way in which it changed social structure and social discourse, and because of a particular metaphysics that I’d not seen early on that appears in incompatible with certain aspects of a “good life.”
Now, I’m leaning even farther in that direction. Maybe the fiercest critics are right—rather than overselling things—in claiming that social media simply hides conservative voices, not necessarily the famous ones, but the numerous ones. Maybe that’s why the “Trump surprise” happened—maybe in fact social media is obscuring, rather than representing, the actual balance of public opinion on many issues.
No, I’m not positive. But on this issue, I am legitimately shocked. What I’ve seen over the last 24-36 hours is clear: Twitter went from showing two active sides on the Brexit issue to a state of affairs in which it appears that there’s only one engaged side on the issue.
Just. like. that.