Twitter has rejected charges from anti-abortion referendum campaigners in Ireland that it has restricted the audience they can reach, but it warns that it will not allow debate to be manipulated on its site.
Peadar Tóibín, the Sinn Féin TD and anti-abortion campaigner, complained that a dozen Right2Life Twitter users have complained their messages have been restricted by the company.
Claiming there “is a significant [pro-repeal] bias” among “mainstream” and social media companies, the Sinn Féin TD’s charges prompted a renewed flurry among anti-abortion activists that they have been affected.
However, the accusation was strongly rejected by a spokesman for Twitter’s Dublin office: “We fundamentally believe in showing every side of a debate and any allegation to the contrary is antithetical to our principles as a company.”
Some anti-abortion activists’ messages were restricted recently while it investigated if they had tried to win a higher profile by repeated uses of a single hashtag. However, the restrictions were later lifted, the company said.
Late on Wednesday, a number of anti-abortion campaigners complained on Twitter that it was censoring their views by ensuring their messages would not be found during searches.
Accusing Twitter of trying “to skew the referendum”, one anti-abortion campaigner, self-identified as Tom Furbo, said Twitter was “amplifying the reach of pro-abortion tweeters” and trying “to undermine democracy itself”.
Shadow- or ghost-banning is where a service provider permanently blocks a user from being seen by others online but the person does not themselves know, at least initially, that what they are posting cannot be seen.
Restricted for a time, Mr Furbo abandoned his usual Twitter handle @TomFurbo and re-emerged within a few hours, with a new one, @TomFurbo2, where he continued to champion his cause.
Responding to questions from The Irish Times on Thursday, a spokesman for Twitter said: "Twitter does not engage in the so-called shadow-banning of accounts. We do, however, enforce the Twitter rules.
Abide by rules
“We fundamentally believe in showing every side of a debate and any allegation to the contrary is antithetical to our principles as a company,” he said, adding that users must abide by the rules regardless of the views they express.
“Bulk or aggressive activity that attempts to manipulate or disrupt Twitter or the experience of users on Twitter to drive traffic or attention to unrelated accounts, products, services, or initiatives” are banned , he said.
Issues can win a higher Twitter profile through repeat, multiple postings of the same content, usually with the same hashtag, thereby engineering a trend, suggesting widespread interest in, and agreement with, opinions.
Privately, some in the company believe that some account holders may be deliberately drawing attention to their account, in the hope that it will be restricted temporarily, thereby enabling them to cry foul.
"You are talking about a very small group of accounts, people very ardently against repeal, who think that the mainstream media, Silicon Valley and Twitter etc are undermining the democratic process to help the repeal side," said a source. "It's rubbish – at every level."