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My Twitter File

It starts with the small stuff.

Twitter Verified Icon Illustration
Twitter Verified icon seen on mobile screen with Elon Musk in the background illustration, in Brussels, Belgium, on December 11, 2022 (Photo illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It seems I was shadow banned by Twitter, even after my suspended account was restored. What is it with these people? What are they so afraid of?

Things are changing fast under new owner Elon Musk, but using available free tools just a few days ago, it seems my new account @PeterMVanBuren was censored. Using a tool called Shadow Bird, I learned my tweets may have been subjected to “Reply Deboosting.” This means that my replies on tweets will be hidden behind a “Show More” button for accounts that don't follow me. This, if true, is particularly frustrating, because it essentially silences me among all users except those who already know and usually agree with me. It would make it nearly impossible to build followers; they have to stumble onto my tweets or come looking for me based on something they have seen online. Reply deboosting is a very effective way of shutting someone up without leaving more than a thin slime trail behind, until now.

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After years of denying such manipulation ("Paranoid much, dude?") Elon Musk has made public information revealing Twitter’s subjection of mostly conservative voices to search-suggestion bans, search bans, ghost bans (blocking content from an online community in such a way that the ban is not readily apparent to the user) and reply deboosting. Though directed at a variety of users, the bans have disfavored voices from the right and in all cases were implemented without notice to the user and without any form of process.

Yes, yes, Twitter is a private company and not subject to the First Amendment, but the moment they became a private company with the ability and demonstrated willingness to influence presidential elections, their business became everyone's business. Extensive Twitter threads posted by Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss revealed that the company was essentially part of a coordinated Democratic suppression operation and actively colluded with the FBI to destroy Donald Trump and assure Joe Biden’s election. This is why, as Elon Musk observed, “Twitter is both a social media company and a crime scene.”

In his novel 1984, George Orwell suggested a diabolical solution to the problem of censorship. He conjured up a technological device for the world of Big Brother called "the memory hole." In his dark future, armies of bureaucrats, working in what Orwell dubbed the Ministry of Truth, spent their lives erasing or altering documents, newspapers, books, and the like in order to create an acceptable version of history. When a person fell out of favor, the Ministry of Truth sent him and all documentation related to him down the memory hole. Every story or report in which his life was noted or recorded would be edited to eradicate all traces of him. Same went for ideas. In our Orwellian moment, all negative news about such things as Hunter Biden's laptop were suppressed on Twitter in the run-up to the election.

In Orwell's pre-digital world, the memory hole was a vacuum tube into which old documents were disappeared forever. Alterations to existing documents and the deep-sixing of others ensured that even the sudden switching of global enemies and alliances would never prove a problem for Big Brother’s guardians. In the world Orwell imagined, thanks to those armies of bureaucrats, the present always had been -- and there were altered documents to prove it and nothing but faltering memories to say otherwise. Anyone who expressed doubts about the truth of the present would, under the rubric of “thoughtcrime,” be marginalized (shadow banned) or eliminated (search banned). What is scary is not how Orwell differs from Twitter, but how similar they are. 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual, @Jack.

Throughout my Foreign Service career, I worked in countries that practiced overt government censorship. Critics of the regime would be punished; often, the regime would find ways to stop those critics from publishing. No newspaper or broadcasting station would take the critics’ work, to the point where they found themselves unable to hand out photocopied pamphlets on street corners. 

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What astounded me was not the censorship per se—that was easy to understand no matter how abhorrent—but the degree of detail. As with Iran's "appearance" morality police who look for any wisp of hair peeking out from beneath a hijab, no subversive thought was too small, no objectionable material too minor for the regime to stomp on. It is the pervasiveness of evil, its level of detail, that made it so wrong. A dictator need not disappear a troublesome person anymore, just his ideas.

I hate using Twitter, but am expected to post my articles there and try to build a following of readers. Even after restoring me to Twitter after my original account with several thousand followers was shut down. Somewhere deep within the Ministry of Twitter, someone apparently thought I must be a threat of some kind, and made sure I would never amass as large a following again, all via reply deboosting. If the Shadow Bird report is true, Twitter thought me a threat. I had only made about 50 Tweets and a few retweets; is there some sort of naughty-not-nice list?

Of course, what Twitter has been doing is small stuff. For the future, look to Google and its negative search strategy. Here's how a negative search strategy works, even if today its focus -- largely on pedophiles -- is easy enough to accept. Google uses software that makes it harder for users to locate child abuse material. Google Search has been “fine-tuned” to clean-up results for more than 100,000 insider terms, many supplied by law enforcement, used by pedophiles to look for child pornography. Now, for instance, when users type in queries that may be related to child sexual abuse, they will find no results that link to illegal content. Instead, Google will redirect them to counseling sites. “We will roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global,” Google claims.

While Google is redirecting searches for child abuse material to counseling sites, the NSA has developed a similar ability. The agency already controls a set of servers code named Quantum that sit on the Internet’s backbone. Their job is to redirect “targets” away from their intended destinations to websites of the NSA's choice. The idea is that you type in the website you want and end up somewhere less disturbing to the agency. While at present this technology may be aimed at sending would-be jihadis to more moderate Islamic material, in the future it could, for instance, be repurposed to redirect people seeking news to an Al-Jazeera lookalike site with altered content that fits the government's version of events. Or making sure no one saw an article about Hunter Biden's laptop. Or hiding the latest revelations from social media.

Back on Twitter, consider the case of @MoonmanCartoons, an account featuring the conservative editorial cartoons of Robert Mooney. Mooney has all of 88 followers yet, according to Shadow Bird, is subject to Twitter's reply blocking and search-suggestion ban, making it impossible for him to build a large follower base. He posts a cartoon and fewer than 100 people see it. Why bother, Twitter?

"Why would they censor us 'small fish?' Mooney asked TAC in an interview. "I think there are a couple of reasons, the first of which is simply because they can. If the technology exists, why wouldn't they use it to achieve their objectives? Also, I think they may see some people at our level as potentially influential if they don't nip us in the bud. Despite the censorship, I've occasionally slipped one by the goalie. For example, when Dinesh D'Souza retweeted one of my cartoons about 2020 election fraud, I got almost 1400 likes and 439 retweets. That sort of thing is rare, but it's happened a few times, showing that I have a potential receptive audience out there.”

He added that “if we keep going down this road, we will end up with a country very different from what we've known for over two centuries and from what the Founders intended—and not different in a good way."

As they say, it starts with the small stuff. Like Twitter.

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