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Twitter Denies Yet Another Censorship Accusation

BY Nick Judd | Monday, December 19 2011

Yesterday, Business Insider contributor David Seaman posted an item titled, "Welcome to the United Police States of America, Sponsored By Twitter."

Any headline that can combine Twitter with an appeal to the paranoia of Internet libertarians everywhere is a sure-fire hit, and this one was, too: Business Insider's hit counter suggests that Seaman's post has already garnered over 70,000 views. The thing is that Seaman's post appears to be flat-out wrong.

Seaman argues on Business Insider that his stentorian writing and tweeting about the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that has civil libertarians concerned about several expansions of military authority, led Twitter to suspend his account. Seaman argued that it was censorship. Later that day, Seaman updated his post with a note:

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."

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."

Part of the algorithm Twitter uses to decide what becomes a trending topic is novelty: If a hashtag is not new, it is less likely to be listed as trending, Honan writes.

This is not the first time an apparently false accusation of censorship against Twitter has generated some traction for the accuser. This summer, I explained the case of Agendawise, a conservative Texas group, whose staff felt for a time that Twitter had canceled their accounts as a form of censorship. Agendawise was concerned with a new state-level journalism initiative called StateImpact, funded by the Open Society Foundations, which are backed by the liberal philanthropist and financier George Soros. Agendawise took up Twitter handles like "StateImpactME" in order to put out its message on StateImpact — which was a no-no on the social media service because the group did not make it clear that Agendawise, and not StateImpact, controlled the accounts. In the course of that dust-up, their would-be censorship situation was covered first by RedState and then by the Drudge Report.

I described Agendawise's Twitter escapade as a tale of a political Twitter strategy gone wrong. Weston Hicks of Agendawise later wrote in to disagree with me, explaining:

Thanks for the heads up. Good story. I'm not sure about the title, though. We brought huge attention to the previously invisible StateImpact Texas and got a liberal media outlet backed by Soros to lie, then retract it.

Bringing attention to stuff like this is probably our best outcome.

The NDAA has a lot of people concerned. Glenn Greenwald has argued at length and in detail against provisions which codify a right for the American military to detain people indefinitely and without trial. He argues that they could apply to American citizens and in any case are against our core principles of due process of law and habeas corpus. Separate from this, another provision would codify a right for the American military to conduct operations online using the same rules that already apply to real-world operations.

All of this is troubling. Does this mean that an American military operation could use Reddit as a battlefield? Would it leave collateral damage? What happens if my personal webserver is on the same rack as one used by an accused terrorist; could it be damaged by a military operation as shrapnel once shattered windows in Iraq? Less Internet-centric and more to the points that concern people like the folks at the American Civil Liberties Union, what exactly are the circumstances under which an American civilian, in the United States, might find herself detained by the military indefinitely and without trial? Glenn Greenwald's argument is that most of the answers under this bill would be up to the President of the United States, as opposed to, you know, being codified in Constitutional protections from unreasonable search and seizure or guaranteed access to due process of law.

But the focus for Seaman doesn't appear to be on the bill — it's on his Twitter account, and a censorship allegation that's still bouncing around the web. "NDAA and SOPA: Are Provisions of These Bills Already Impacting Web Users?" attorney Donna Seyle wrote on Twitter, retweeting the headline of an International Business Times article echoing Seaman's allegations.

Her account is still active.

This post has been corrected. The NDAA doesn't appear to have been signed into law yet.