Twitter had ‘secret blacklists’ to limit users, journalist claims

Independent journalist Bari Weiss says platform restricted visibility of ‘disfavored tweets’.

Bari Weiss talking into a microphone, wearing black top
Independent journalist Bari Weiss says Twitter used secret blacklists to limit the visibility of certain accounts [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

Twitter created “secret” blacklists to limit the visibility of “disfavored tweets” and certain right-leaning accounts, independent journalist Bari Weiss has claimed, citing an investigation based on internal company documents.

Weiss, a former New York Times opinion editor who now runs The Free Press, said on Friday the social media platform’s previous management restricted the reach of particular accounts with what it called a “Trends Blacklist” and “Search Blacklist” as well as a “Do Not Amplify” tag.

Twitter, which was bought by billionaire Elon Musk in October, has in the past publicly acknowledged limiting the reach of certain accounts – leaving them visible to followers but limiting their visibility in conversations and search results – although it has received criticism for not notifying affected users or being transparent about its decisions.

In a Twitter thread, Weiss said the blacklisted figures included Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford University professor who opposed COVID-19 lockdowns, Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, and “Libs of TikTok”, an account that reposts and mocks content posted elsewhere by liberals and LGBTQ people.

Weiss, who quoted a number of unnamed Twitter employees to support her claims, included screenshots that appeared to show the interface Twitter used to blacklist certain accounts, including tags denoting their restricted status.

“We control visibility quite a bit. And we control the amplification of your content quite a bit,” Weiss quoted an unnamed Twitter engineer as saying. “And normal people do not know how much we do.”

Weiss said the most politically sensitive decisions were made by a team known as “Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support,” which included Vijaya Gadde, the then head of legal, policy, trust and safety, and Yoel Roth, who was global head of trust and safety.

Al Jazeera has contacted Gadde and Roth on Twitter and Linkedin for comment.

Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s former head of product, rebutted Weiss’ of characterisation of the platform’s policies, saying the company never denied ranking accounts but had rejected claims of “shadow banning” – or making certain posts undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it.

“You are characterizing any de-amplification as equating to shadow banning which is either a lazy interpretation or deliberately misleading,” Beykpour said on Twitter.

Weiss’s publication of the material comes after Twitter’s new owner Musk shared internal company documents with Weiss and fellow independent journalist Matt Taibbi.

Musk, a self-described free-speech absolutist who has accused Twitter’s old management of being biased towards liberal viewpoints, has cast the release of the files as an effort to increase transparency about the platform’s influence over political speech.

Critics have accused Musk of leading a witch hunt against former Twitter employees, compromising the platform’s safety and security, and ushering in a surge in bigotry and hate on the platform.

On Friday, Musk wrote on Twitter that the platform was working on an update to “show your true account status, so you know clearly if you’ve been shadowbanned, the reason why and how to appeal”.

Weiss’s claims on Friday drew a polarised response, with conservatives seizing on her reporting as evidence of Twitter’s liberal bias and many on the left accusing her of hyping up a non-story and doing PR for Musk, the world’s richest man.

Some Twitter users also pointed out that Musk last month said that hateful and negative tweets would be “deboosted” and “demonetised” under his leadership, casting the platform’s new policy as “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”

Last Friday, Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone Journalist who now writes on Substack, published internal Twitter correspondence from October 2020 showing how executives made the decision to restrict the spread of a New York Post article about materials found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, United States President Joe Biden’s son.

The communications showed Twitter’s top brass discussing how to handle the article, the sharing of which was ultimately restricted under the platform’s policy against hacked materials.

Twitter’s decision to censor the article, which provoked heated debate about the role of social media in democracy, came after former US intelligence officials said the laptop story bore the hallmarks of Russian disinformation – although no evidence of Russian involvement was offered.

Source: Al Jazeera