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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13 Comments

Filed under blogging, journalism, social media, technology, Twitter

13 responses to “On Twitter suspensions, spam, censorship and SOPA

  1. I tend to believe in Twitter’s response and its validity.

  2. I know a couple of other Occupy Wall Street twitterers that also had that accounts suspended by “accident” recently. Don’t believe the corporate side just yet…

  3. Can I just be the one to say Seaman was being a dick here? He was irresponsible, in the wrong, and calls into question his legitimacy and credibility as a reporter on any topic. Everyone’s too nice to say it, but I think anybody with even a passing familiarity with how large-scale web services work could have anticipated exactly why his account got suspended. Frustrates the hell out of me that people (specifically Business Insider, which gave him a platform for this idiocy) indulge this.

  4. best way to get followers for your new account evar?

  5. There’s a lot of smoke from whatever fire of censorship on Twitter (and Facebook) actually exists. At the very least, this episode, among others, should provoke a reconsideration of how accounts are suspended, and how suspensions and policies around suspensions are communicated to users.
    As to the trending topics, suspicion arises when procedures aren’t sufficiently transparent. Twitter might do well to see how they can improve their communication here as well.

  6. Everyone unconvinced that this was a perfectly legitimate suspension needs to re-read the absolutely correct fact from Jillian C. York:

    “if you’re tweeting the same sentence(s) over and over again, you’re spamming. That’s what spam is, no matter the content.”

    And David Seaman did that, at least on a small scale, apparently trying to get attention of other more prominent journalists. He spammed. He got suspended for spamming. No story here except that of a clueless person running headlong into clues and proving resistant.

    For most of 2 decades there has been a broad consensus online that “spamming” is a bad thing and that its definition is not sensitive to whether the spammed message is good and important. Everyone has an inalienable human right to free speech. No one has a right to make anyone else listen to what they say. Media like Twitter and email support sending messages specifically to people who have not asked for them in the hope that senders will use that ability wisely and politely. That’s not worked well in email, but Twitter has the design advantage of making spammers like Seaman use message space for addresses and so to make it obvious that they are spamming by sending multiple substantively identical messages “to” different people. It also has the feature of operating as one company’s private property, so Twitter Inc. is omniscient over all tweeting and omnipotent over cutting off accounts. People who think the right to free speech means the right to Tweet, even to Tweet innocuously, are simply wrong. Twitter Inc. is not required to provide a medium for all topics and/or users and neither is Facebook or Google or Automattic (WordPress) or any other service provider who doesn’t offer a valid contract to provide such service.

  7. aguy

    I was suspended and after complaining, I received the same reason I was caught up in some spam group by mistake by the system. You people should stop assuming things. I for instance, posted no links, posted no political or religious things. all what I tweeted was non-offensive jokes. I had very few tweets. yet suspended. their system misbehaves. don’t try to blame others for their bugs. I have broken no rules whatsoever. even they said they restored my account. it is still suspended. They need to fix their bots.

  8. Andrew

    I have just had my account suspended 3 days prior to an election.

    My posts were to some degree repetitious but they were a political message which would reach different demographics at different times of the day across the under hashtags.

    If you check the spam act political communication is exempt of the spam act.

    There were no monies derived from the tweets. About 10-20 per day. There was no personal attacks and many tweets that were @ were television programs.

    It also appears Twitter is removing posts with hyperlinks to particular websites which may impact powerful lobby groups in the US. So much for free speech.

    Meanwhile the porn spam bots continue under the same hashtag along with the some vial language poster with the most vitriol of language.

    Id say I was reported by someone with enough sway to have me canned 2 days prior the election.

    I cant see Twitter surviving under this reporting model. Business will need several accounts to prevent suspension.

    Now that Twitter are implementing advertising it will only take one of the other big dotcoms to release and improved version before complete collapse.

    If I were business I wouldn’t invest the time with such volatility in the reporting procedure.

    It appears someone with power has had me suspended at a whim. There is also organised pack trolls running around having Twitter suspend accounts.

    3 accounts on different days for different purposes, another to store backed up tweets that wont be suspended.

    I cant see Twitter sustaining long term business. Their policy is too willy nilly.

    Its a lot to lose.

  9. Pingback: Under pressure, Twitter prepares to extend reporting abuse to all users | digiphile

  10. adrian

    i joined recently
    got suspended twice in 3 days
    it seem 2b when i replied to a tweet that had more than 1 @name in it
    i think 2 possibilites

    a – twitter is just overloaded and is trying to slim down tweet numbers sent
    b – high profile ppl complainin aout ppl they dont know gettin in on there tweets, which would be against the twitter logic
    c – crap software problems, mis identifyin spammin

    i am at a loss of how i participate in a conversation without commiting multiple replies to the 3, 4 5 … ppl followin the conversation

    does this mean some exclusivity is being worked into twiiter where uppity plebs get suspended for darin to join in conversations with high profile tweeters

  11. Pingback: Twitter suspends open government blog for being too social | E Pluribus Unum

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