Patriotism and Twitter Säuberung: Keeping the Wrong Words Out of View

Some Background for Those Not Familiar with Twitter

It’s not a few times that Twitter has been accused of engaging in censorship-like practices, or in caving in to governmental and political interests. In the narrow range of subjects which I follow via Twitter, we saw incidences of this concerning with the so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran, when Twitter readily agreed to State Department demands that it postpone maintenance that might have supposedly interrupted the flow of messages that allegedly were coming from within Iran. We also saw this with the deluge of tweets earlier this summer concerning the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, when it was abundantly clear to those posting related messages that no matter how many more tweets the subject was getting per minute, compared to Twitter’s other listed “trending topics,” that it was nearly impossible to get #FreedomFlotilla to trend.

The case I am presenting concerns a relatively new feature of Twitter, where certain tweets, if they are auto-retweeted enough times, earn a kind of badge that says “top tweet,” pertaining to a given subject (a discussion represented by a keyword preceded by a hash-tag, such as #Afghanistan). By auto-retweet, I mean when a Twitter user simply clicks on “retweet” beneath a given tweet: it can be a way to indicate approval and endorsement, but in some cases it can just mean “look at this.” Manual retweets, as I call them, involve copying and pasting a tweet, or editing them somehow, and then placing RT in front of the given tweet–they take more time to do, and are not counted by Twitter in its “top tweet” function. A “top tweet” is fixed in place at the top of a discussion list, for all to see, and it remains there…from what I have seen, for several days even, unless other tweets also become top tweets and move it out of view because more people auto-retweeted them.

Twitter Cleansing on the Eve of 9/11 2010

Now I am also accusing Twitter of censoring what users see. This is not a case of Twitter having deleted anything I wrote, just moving it out of view, from a place it earned under Twitter’s own rules.

I was clearly unmoved by all of the official piety surrounding Pastor Terry Jones’ threatened Quran burning session for 11 September 2010. All this palaver about “endangering troops” (when so far the only person to get killed over this was an unarmed Afghan protester…and the only ones “endangering” his life were NATO troops themselves), and all the natter about a “recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda” (senseless fear-mongering, that if Obama were to take his own words seriously would at least cause him to consider immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Iraq, and drastically scale back aid to Israel). In other words, it struck me all as bullshit–mere window dressing, soft power, when empire gets stuck on stupid and seeks to gain pitiful little mileage from a wayward pastor. So I wrote this:

America doesn’t burn books. It burns countries.

Thanks to very kind and generous followers, it quickly became the top tweet on #Afghanistan, #Iraq, #Panama, #Nicaragua, #ElSalvador, #Vietnam, #Iran, and #Korea. Coincidentally, a tweet from another Montrealer that I correspond with, Sarah Abdallah, was also at the top. At last count, mine had 35. For a while, it appeared third, under a days old tweet about a McCain interview on Fox News Sunday, and an even older one that was gibberish from some celebrity–top tweets often remain in place for a whole week.

In less than 24 hours, unusually fast, both mine and Sarah’s were gone, no longer top tweets, replaced by one from Stars and Stripes, with far fewer retweets, about some killer getting a medal.

Here are some screen captures (click to enlarge to clear quality). The first is from early on when ours climbed to the top, now about 24 hours ago:

and this is how that appeared a few hours ago:

The reason mine appears at all in the second screen capture is because I took it soon after bringing this to the attention of followers in Twitter, whose generosity once again made them retweet it further. Otherwise, this is what you get now.

NATO’S Twitter Arm

That list is usually dominated by NATO’s ISAF, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFORA) which as you can clearly see in the top picture is ensconced by Twitter above all else, various U.S. military branches, milbloggers, and military families, as well as breaking news alerts from mainstream media. In all of the time I have been following that list, especially since the “top tweet” function came into being, and with all of the worldwide opposition to the war in Afghanistan, I have never before seen a “critical” tweet at the top. That was my first source of surprise in finding mine at the top.

My days of complaining privately, and being ignored privately, are long over. That somebody has taken Twitter’s ear again, or forced its arm, or whether it chose independently to perform its own Säuberung to keep things nice and pretty for 9/11, or whether fat headed patriotic American users complained…whatever, whether one or the other possibility, or all of them combined, does not matter. We see in the second screen capture that its system is being manipulated, where Stars and Stripes with fewer retweets is kept above those with more. There is no denying it.

So, what would Twitter’s advice be to Pastor Terry Jones:

Don’t burn those Qurans. Just get as many as you can, and quietly move them out of view.

And what should we remember on 9/11?

Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.
–Heinrich Heine

7 thoughts on “Patriotism and Twitter Säuberung: Keeping the Wrong Words Out of View

  1. Jérémy

    I believe it is absolutely possible that twitter would do this kind of thing.
    In that case though, from what I see in the two screen captures, it looks like the order of “top tweets” depends on both the number of RTs and the “age” of the tweet. In the first screen capture, your tweet with 15 RTs is above Jnoubuiyeh’s tweet with 20 RT. Her tweet is lower than yours, maybe because it’s older. Maybe it’s a question of (number of RTs)/(age of the tweet) ratio.
    What do you think ?

    But honestly, I think that such a corporation would do just what she wants to do with its thing, and doesn’t give a sh*t about accountability, democracy, fairness. They are in it for the bucks. Don’t they also have “sponsored tweets” now ?
    Twitter revolution. LOL

    1. Maximilian Forte

      That’s a plausible explanation Jérémy. On the Wikileaks discussion list however, rather old tweets remain at the top, in some cases announcing news that is quite out of date. In other discussions, there are no top tweets at all. I don’t believe their system is programmed to be random, but rather different discussions carry different weight and are probably monitored and manipulated accordingly.

      In the end, as one correspondent in Twitter told me, what we really need is our own p2p social media, and not rely on these commercial entities. It would also mean that we have to pay for what we use–which as slow as I have been to get used to that idea, is something I do much more regularly now anyway.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        Thanks Jérémy. I have not seen something similar outside of that #Afghanistan list. Again, it seems like anything is done to drive down the more controversial tweet, if even it takes just one retweeter. One would never know that there was widespread opposition to the war, cutting across ideological lines, from looking at what is promoted in Twitter, and certainly the constant promotion of “U.S. Forces Afghanistan” first and above all else is enough of a sign of what is intended to dominate.

        Contrast #Afghanistan with #Wikileaks, where the latter tends to be the kind of pattern which I have normally seen, even if the top tweet is still a relatively new one:

  2. M. L. Rachell Berry

    I just wanted to say thanks for this site. I’ve been following it for awhile and as a new student of anthropology (new in name of major on transcript…old in passion!) the discussions I find here give me a renewed zeal for my chosen field. Issues like globalization, censorship, the military-industrial complex, etc, are things I hoped to confront in my future work, but was unsure if such explorations were welcome in the discipline. I’m beginning to see how some subjects both ‘are’ and ‘are not’ anthropology, which is exactly what I hoped to discover. :) I appreciate the turn the site has taken and thank everyone for their seemingly tireless work. While I can’t always keep up with all the great information, please know that it’s helping students and future radical anthropologists like myself.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much Rachell. Hopefully more will appear on this site soon that speaks directly to and about anthropology…always promising, but time (and sometimes motivation) are becoming bigger factors than before. In the meantime, thanks again for posting your comment.

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