Daily Archives: December 18, 2011

On Twitter suspensions, spam, censorship and SOPA

Suspended OwlEarlier this afternoon, David Seaman claimed that Twitter suspended his account for tweeting too much about “Occupy Wall Street … and talking too much about the controversial detainment without trial provisions contained in the FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).”

His account is now back online. Twitter’s official response to him, according to Seaman, was that his account was ‘caught up in one of spam groups by mistake.

Seaman continued to suggest otherwise and implied that Twitter is banning accounts because of their content.

Speaking only for myself, I believe this was completely unrelated to NDAA or OWS and was instead tied to his behavior using a new account. I think what happened today was an auto-suspension of a new account exhibiting behavior associated, not intentional censorship by Twitter. Jillian C. York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agreed:

I’m writing without an official statement from Twitter but I’d bet that’s what happened. (If I receive such a statement, I’ll post it here.)

UPDATE: Here are the emails Seaman posted to his post, containing Twitter’s responses. They validates my understanding of Twitter’s anti-spam protocols.

At approximately 7:37pm ET, my Twitter account was restored, and I received the following message from Twitter support: “Hello, Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake. I’ve restored your account; sorry for the inconvenience. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal.” At 8:29pm ET, a second email from Twitter support was received: “Hello, As a clarification, your account was suspended twice; the initial suspension was due to a number of unsolicited duplicate or near-duplicate messages being sent using the @reply and/or mention feature. These features are intended to make communication between people on Twitter easier. Twitter monitors the use of these features to make sure they are used as intended and not for abuse. Using either feature to post messages to a bunch of users in an unsolicited or egregious manner is considered an abuse of its use, which results in an automated account suspension. However, the second suspension after you navigated the self-unsuspension page was due to a known error we are working to fix; our apologies for the re-suspension. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

As far as I know, Twitter accounts aren’t automatically suspended based upon a journalist writing about a controversial issue. You can read the Twitter FAQ on suspensions for their official position. Suspensions are only supposed to happen when a user breaks the Twitter Rules, not because of what they describe or report on. Again, York:

Suspending accounts on Twitter is precedented behavior. What’s less so is a self-identified journalist making a sweeping claim of censorship like this without confirmation, corroboration or analysis of Twitter’s past practices. My account was suspended 2 years ago when @Twitter swept it up on people tweeting on the #g2s hashtag. It was restored the day after wards, along with other people tweeting from the IP address.

I doubt Seaman’s contention that this suspension was related to content. I think it was a mistaken outcome based upon interactions. New accounts are more likely to be flagged automatically as @spam. What happened wasn’t about any one tweet: it’s came through nine tweets in a row of nearly duplicate content to non-followers from a new account. Specifically, “How #Occupy and the #TeaParty could end their struggle tonight: http://read.bi/vL02ZI #NDAA #SOPA #OWS”

Bottom line: Seaman made a sensational claim that probably shouldn’t have been made without more legwork and a statement from Twitter. He used Business Insider’s platform to bring attention to a mistake. It may have brought Business Insider a lot of traffic today but I think, on balance, that Seaman damaged his credibility today.

That’s unfortunate, given that the episode could have been leveraged to make an important point about how governments might work with private social media platforms to remove content that they do not wish to see published.

On that count, learn more about the Stop Online Piracy Act at Radar.

Update: Conor Adams Stevens picked up the Business Insider post and wrote a largely uncritical op-ed at International Business Times that repeated the claim that “NDAA, SOPA, Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous may be off-limits on Twitter.” (If that were true, I wouldn’t have been able to tweet for quite a few months now.)

Update: Nick Judd picked up the story at techPresident, adding some context to the latest episode of Twitter denying another censorship accusation. Judd observes that Deamon’s post “appears to be flat out wrong”:

Seaman still seems to think that some occult hand is at work against opponents of NDAA, questioning the veracity of Twitter’s response to him. This makes no sense, given that NDAA has generated at least 117,000 tweets in the last seven days. None of those have been swept under the digital rug.

There’s also a conspiracy theory floating around about why Twitter has not listed NDAA as a trending topic. Mat Honan bursts that bubble in a post from last week for Gizmodo, which is actually focused on a hashtag memorializing the late Christopher Hitchens. Its title is succinct: “Shutup, Twitter Isn’t Censoring Your Dumb Trends.”

Image Credit: Steve Garfield

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