‘Russian bots’ outcry: Is Twitter cracking down on people who ‘challenge the status quo’?
A crackdown on bot spam or dissent?
“The whole meme of the bots, especially the ‘Russian bots,’ is actually being used as a kind of defensive mechanism,” said Mike Raddie. “Whenever people criticize the corporate media in the West – we’ve done it with the Guardian – they come back and say, ‘oh, you’re part of a Russian bot army,’ or a typical question is, ‘what’s the weather like in St. Petersburg? Is it snowing in Moscow yet?’ So it’s a very useful meme for corporate journalists to deflect any kind of criticism, especially over hot topics such as Syria, Ukraine – things like this.”
A number of Twitter accounts are said to have been flagged over the past few days, in what many have speculated is part of the company’s efforts to clamp down on the much-touted army of Russian-controlled automated accounts, or “bots.” However, Twitter has yet to elaborate on the reported mass purge, which allegedly also targeted users with right-wing views – raising concerns of political censorship on the popular social media platform. The hashtag #TwitterLockOut began trending on the site shortly after the suspensions.
Getting all kinds of reports that twitter is shutting down Conservative accounts on twitter claiming they are bots. Must be their way to purge Conservatives off of twitter. #Fascistshttps://t.co/XGZc6R8AhE— Nat Shupe (@NatShupe) February 21, 2018
“If Twitter has begun this campaign of eliminating or blocking people that have different ideas than the company wants to portray or the message that they want to get out, I think it’s very harming to democracy and freedom of speech,” Christian Mancera, a lawyer and 2018 congressional candidate, told RT. “We have to keep every single channel of communication open, and just because a person has a conservative view doesn’t make that person an enemy, or make that person politically incorrect. So I hope that Twitter comes forward and clarifies.”
Although his own outlet’s Twitter account recently received a 12-hour suspension, allegedly for “criticizing a multi-billionaire,” Raddie suggested that most users who get hit with the ban hammer are likely victims of the company’s “crude algorithm,” and not singled out by an actual Twitter employee. However, he said the company’s recent behavior suggests that when Twitter “sees challenges, serious challenges, to the status quo, they’re likely to limit activity or even block accounts or delete accounts.”
Hunting for ‘Russian links’
Dragged in front of the US Senate last year as part of efforts to expose “Russian influence” in the 2016 presidential elections, Twitter initially revealed that it had identified 201 “Russia-linked” accounts operating on its platform. After Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) expressed disappointment in the anticlimactic findings, Twitter raised its figure to 36,746.
As part of its autumn crackdown, Twitter banned an account owned by an African-American political activist from Atlanta – allegedly for her “links” to Russia. “This whole suppression of voices in using this Russian scare tactic is just way too far,” Charlie Peach, who has absolutely no ties to Russia, told RT back in October.
“In my lifetime I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t remember the McCarthyism era, obviously, because I’m not that old, but my parents talked to me about it and things that were occurring at the time,” Peach told RT. “It ensures that the 1 percent continues to have a narrative and that anyone who opposes that are no longer allowed to speak. You look at CNN, MSNBC ‒ they gave us the Iraq War. This is what they do. The main media houses that run everything are the ones that continue to push the propaganda and make sure we’re shut down.”
In January, the US Senate Intelligence Committee published answers provided by Twitter, Facebook and Google in response to questions concerning Russia’s alleged use of social media to meddle with American democracy. In its written response, Twitter disclosed that it had identified nine accounts as being “potentially linked to Russia that promoted election-related, English-language content.” Of these nine nefarious accounts “potentially linked” to Russia, “the most significant use of advertising was by @RT_com and @RT_America. Those two accounts collectively ran 44 different ad campaigns, accounting for nearly all of the relevant advertising we reviewed,” according to Twitter. Conspicuously absent from Twitter’s written statement was the fact that the American tech giant traveled to Moscow to pitch a proposal for RT to spend huge sums on advertising for the US presidential election – an offer which RT declined.
'Shadow ban' controversy
More recently, in January, conservative journalism watchdog Project Veritas released undercover footage of current and former Twitter staff who appear to admit to silencing conservative voices using “shadow bans” – which block a user or their content from reaching a wider audience without their knowledge.
“We’re giving away an awful lot to these companies, but when they come out and publicly say they want to be the public forum for free speech, yet they’re censoring free speech and they are slanting what free speech can or cannot be heard, then there’s a problem,” Project Veritas executive director Russell Verney told RT.
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