In 2015, then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo secretly ordered employees to filter out abusive and hateful replies to President Barack Obama during a Q&A session, sources tell BuzzFeed News.
According to these sources, the May 2015 #AskPOTUS town hall came out of Twitter senior leadership's frustration with the fact that platforms like Reddit had become home to celebrity Q&As.
According to a former senior Twitter employee, Costolo ordered employees to deploy an algorithm (which was built in-house by feeding it thousands of examples of abuse and harassing tweets) that would 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. Two sources told BuzzFeed News that this decision was kept from senior company employees for fear they would object to the decision.
According to sources, the decision upset some senior employees inside the company who strictly followed Twitter's long-standing commitment to unfettered free speech.
In its early years, Twitter took numerous public stands against censorship, even fighting a secret government order to provide user information for WikiLeaks. In 2011, Twitter senior executives published a blog post titled “The Tweets Must Flow."
“There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam,” the post read. “However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule — we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content.” Not long after the post, Twitter executives began publicly touting that “Twitter is the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
A different source alleges that Twitter did the same thing during a Q&A with Caitlyn Jenner.
“This was another example of trying to woo celebs and show that you can have civilized conversations without the hate even if you’re a high-profile person,” the source said. “But it’s another example of a double standard — we’ll protect our celebrities, while the average user is out there subject to all kinds of horrible things.”
A month after the Obama Q&A, Costolo stepped down as CEO, retaining a seat on Twitter’s board. In an exit interview with The Guardian on his last day, he defended Twitter’s commitment to free speech. “I will say directly that I think regulation is a threat to free speech,” he said.
Costolo did not respond to requests for comment.
Read more about Twitter's 10-year failure to curb abuse here.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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