Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had secretly ordered employees to filter out abusive and hateful replies to US President Barack Obama during the May 2015 #AskPOTUS town hall meeting, the media reported on Friday. According to Buzzfeed, Costolo asked employees to deploy an algorithm which was built in-house to filter out abusive language directed at Obama.
“Another source said the media partnerships team also manually censored tweets, noting that Twitter’s public quality-filtering algorithms were inconsistent,” the report added. The decision was kept secret from senior employees who followed Twitter as long-standing commitment to free speech. After a month Obama’s town hall meeting, Costolo stepped down as CEO.
In an exit interview with The Guardian, he defended Twitter’s commitment to free speech, saying that “I will say directly that I think regulation is a threat to free speech”. In its early years, Twitter took several stands against censorship, even in the WikiLeaks case.
The story of Twitter creating a filtering algorithm is interesting, because so far the platform hasn’t done something like this to keep out the general abusive tweets that are present on it. On Twitter, abusive tweets and harassment of women, people of colour, minorities is a fairly common problem; one the company has not been able to clamp down on effectively. BuzzFeed has also done an in-depth article on how Twitter failed to stem abuse for 10 years, with focus on user growth and free speech, eclipsing the need to create a safe platform.
In fact as the Obama case shows, Twitter could have well created such a platform to filter out the general abuse, but willfully chose not to do this. In February 2015, when Twitter started to face increasing trouble over growth and missed revenues, Costolo had admitted, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls,” in an internal memo he had written to the employees.
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His memo to employees had read, “It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd.”
But it is interesting that Costolo ordered for the censoring of these tweets in secret, because as Gamergate, and other incidents have shown there were plenty of celebs, other high-profile users who chose to leave Twitter because it did nothing stop the abuse. In India too, journalists, especially female journalists and Bollywood stars face regular harassment, which includes death and rape threats, but Twitter hasn’t been able to create a system to filter these, or even block users who issue them.
With IANS inputs
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