In the wake of Israel raiding ships carrying aid en route for Gaza, sparking furor on Twitter, something strange happened on the micro-blogging site that stirred a lot of reactions. The hashtag, a way to categorize information on Twitter, pertaining to the raid was #flotilla. It somehow disappeared from Twitter trends for a while before reappearing.
Whether it was a technical snafu or actual censorship, this issue raises flags about Twitter for many as well as about the very essence of the openness of social media.
Had you tried yesterday the standard URL to search for the latest on the subject – http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23flotilla – you would
have briefly gotten a result saying “Twitter error”. Was it an honest mistake, a technically algorithmic mishap or an act of censorship?
Many were quick to defend Twitter as censorship not being in “present in its DNA”. Sean Garrett (@SG), communication head for Twitter, tweeted:
Just as many did ask the question: Was Twitter censoring the #flotilla related tweets because those were, in their majority, critical of Israel?
Mike Butcher (@mikebutcher) from TechCrunch Europe outlined in great details the technicalities of the hashtag disappearance to conclude it related to Twitter’s anti-spam algorithm rules
being tripped by the rapid rise of the #flotilla hashtag. Also explaining why, at the same time, #Israil (Turk for Israel) was trending instead of its English version. This, all the while “twitter flotilla” was strongly trending on Google.
But several comments, without being political, did not seem to buy the explanation. As “John Dean” called the conclusion flawed.
Others, such as “Imran”, outright mocked the explanation. Comparing to the otherwise long-trending topic of the Iranian elections topic, even driving users to add a greenish taint to their avatars in support of the protestors.––
Despite Mike Butcher’s plea to keep politics out the TechCrunch post, comments inevitably veered towards heated exchanges on conspiracy theories.
Charles Arthur (@CharlesArthur), technology editor at The Guardian, seconded the snafu as technical by pointing to an independent map (Trendsmap) showing people quickly shifting hashtag to #freedomflotilla after the disappearance of the shorter version and which trended rapidly thus, according to the author, disproving the censorship theory.
Tom Foremski (@TomForemski) from the Silicon Valley Watcher, on the other hand brought up the idea of whether Twitter, and social media in general, was in need of the same “circuit breakers” in place for the stock market; for instance when
“…news dissemination is far faster, far more viral, and the subject might be something which could trigger in riots, violence, or other possible distress, to a society or region?”
Regardless of political orientation and the reasons behind the temporary vanishing of the #flotilla hashtag, this issue raised flags about Twitter for many as well as about the very essence of the openness of social media.
If social media is about openness and trust, wouldn’t “social circuit breakers” defeat the whole purpose of social and new media and its promise? Does this mean that people will in the future relinquish common sense and judgment to social networks? And even then, how long could the people be misguided by a “false” trend? Who would decide to trip the breaker? Humans or machines? How would that affect the very willingness to participate in social media? The question will eventually hinge on, how much information actually gets to people and how much of it might be filtered out.
What do you think? Did Twitter censor or was it simply a technical mishap? How about having circuit breakers?