It’s time to regulate Ma Bird

Twitter is the new Public Switched Message Network, but is failing to deliver on its legal obligations as a public forum. It now must be regulated.

Is Twitter a business run by ethical people in accordance with the law, or is it a manipulative fraud being perpetrated on the public? I have an opinion, but let me share some data with you first.

I have obtained two lists of Twitter accounts, one MAGA (Make America Great Again) and the other MSM (Mainstream Media). To avoid any accusation of me cherry picking Twitter accounts, these lists were created by other people.

The MAGA citizen investigative journalist list was created by @TheSpeaker2018, and includes quite a few folk who I respect and have learnt much from. However, here I only offer it as an exemplar, not an endorsement. You are welcome to find your own set of conservative-leaning people and redo the analysis for yourself. There are far more to choose from than the 25 I pulled out here, as this one misses my personal favourites like 2runtherace and StormIsUponUs.

The MSM professional journalist list includes everyone that Wikileaks documents and emails proved had ethically unsound relationships with the Democratic National Committee. (If it helps, think of it as “collusion”; otherwise, it’s just plain old corruption.) They come from (among others) ABC, Bloomberg, Buzzfeed, CBS, CNN, Daily Beast, Huffington Post, MSNBC, NPR, New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. I spent a few hours getting their Twitter handles (74 out of 91 had one).

I then used to test if there was any censorship being applied by Twitter to each account. It was very boring, and somewhat uncomfortable as it’s boiling hot in London right now, but I suffered gladly for the collective good. Then I charted the results, using the following key:

“Suspended” and “uncensored” are self-explanatory. A “search ban” means you become invisible to anyone hunting for what you’ve said. A “QFD shadowban” refers to the Quality Filter Discrimination algorithm that scrubs tweets from timelines that don’t “contribute to the conversation”. The recipient can turn it off, as it’s on by default, but the hundreds of people who have reached out to me today shows that the public is oblivious to it.

So, how do our citizen investigative journalists fare?

Every single one is censored by Twitter in some way. Even I was surprised to find this. And how about our mainstream media journalists?

Not a single one has any impediment put in their way. Funny, that.

It is possible to interpet this as being that the QFD filter is a great success, and finely honed to its task. I beg to differ. If you believe in free speech, it means protecting minority or dissenting opinion with every bit as much vociferousness as that of any popular or incumbent power.

Furthermore, the filter appears to have little to do with quality. For instance, Thomas Wictor is one of the most amazing military analysts, and he is shadow banned.

Meanwhile, “proud paedophile” Patton Oswalt seems to enjoy the magical protection zone of members of the media and entertainment industry… which is odd, as being blocked is supposed to be a key factor in getting shadow banned.

These are anecdotes, not data, but my observation is that there are large numbers of innocent people being shadow banned, and many outright criminals being given free reign. As prominent politicians get caught up in these bans — with the same bias evident — this matter is now gaining the attention of lawmakers and regulators.

Whilst Twitter is a private company, it is also a public forum. It has a contract with the end user — which implicitly includes the many public commitments not to engage in favouritism. I will write on another occasion how I have experienced naked censorship that violates this contract.

Twitter also has a legal obligation not to engage in activities that infringe on citizens’ core rights. I am not a First Amendment lawyer, but in American law there is specific precedent on your right of access on private property to engage in public speech — somewhat ironically set by my nemesis, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, the property owner is entitled to prevent you causing a disturbance. These banned people are definitely not “disturbing the peace” on Twitter; they are merely political foes of the Twitter management.

We’ve been here before with telephony, when Strowger invented the automatic switch to stop calls to his business being diverted to rivals by operators. You wouldn’t expect your phone company to be able to take your number away for saying the wrong things (without due process of law). So why do we accept our inferior position in protecting our identity and speech when it is typed instead of spoken?

Twitter is effectively the new Public Switched Message Network — doing “local and long distance tweets”. It has a de facto monopoly on many public people and relations; you won’t find the same people and organisations elsewhere. Twitter is also explicitly algorithmically shaping the conversation space to suit its own socially accepted image. I might choose to move to another platform with better filter policies, but the conversation cannot follow me, as there is no interoperability.

The potential mischief you can get up to with biased algorithms is very large. Extremely serious crimes like election rigging may find willing enablers inside corrupted Silicon Valley organisations. My experience gives me very low confidence in Twitter as an ethical institution. The spread of such an “antisocial media” poses to our polity and society. People like me also need protecting against any retribution for speaking out.

With AT&T and “Ma Bell”, the grip the company had over American life became too great, and the need to act became unavoidable. This is a matter of similar, if not greater, importance since it affects public discourse and democratic choice everywhere. The time has come for those we hire as our guardians to take a determined look at Ma Bird, and judge what regulation is appropriate.


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