Thursday, July 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He imagined he was being persecuted by Twitter.

No one can deny Trump puts in the time necessary to be a Twitter expert: he's tweeted more than 7,500 times since being inaugurated, often in hours-long blocks during the work day. But he got fooled by a bit of actual fake news where Twitter was concerned today. Trump accused Twitter (in a tweet, naturally) of "shadow banning" Republicans, which he called "discriminatory and illegal." He also threatened a government investigation.

Shadow banning is when a social media platform hides a user's posts from others, without informing the user. It's a way of keeping spam, troll, or otherwise harmful posts from disrupting other users' experience. It's a controversial practice, but on a private messaging service, it's not illegal or anything that the government would have grounds to investigate.

Trump probably got the idea from a Vice article that erroneously applied the term to the way that some accounts don't immediately appear in the auto-completed Twitter search boxes when the first few letters of their names were typed. Those accounts do appear when the search is actually entered, and all their public posts remain visible. 

Twitter does rank its search results in one particular way that might have hurt Trump-connected Republicans, though. Twitter factors in how often an account is flagged for abuse. It also factors in whether "accounts are connected to those that violate our rules, and how they interact with each other." The vast network of bot accounts used to disseminate Russian propaganda into Americans' Twitter feeds are often reported for abuse.

In other words, Twitter accounts that retweet or respond to a lot of Russian propaganda (or other abusive accounts) are likely to appear lower on Twitter search results for the first few letters of their names. This is true regardless of the politics of the user.

The good news for Trump is that his name does autocomplete in the Twitter search box, in spite of the fact that Russian propaganda bots retweeted his tweets 470,000 times in the months leading up to the 2016 election.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents should probably make some effort to find out the truth before attacking an American company to 53 million followers (some of whom are actual people).
  • It's not Twitter's fault that Russian trolls working to support Trump's candidacy and erode American's confidence in their government are good at their jobs.
  • This would be a waste of a president's time and energy even if it had been true.