Twitter offers incoherent explanation for anti-LGBTQ censorship

The list of "sensitive media" terms was "out of date."

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew
CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

Twitter is trying to explain its sudden, mistaken censorship of LGBTQ content, but the explanation is only raising more questions.

Over the weekend, media searches for terms like “bisexual,” “gay,” and “queer” suddenly dried up on Twitter. An error message claimed that the content may not be accessible because it is “potentially sensitive.” Twitter users and LGBTQ advocates were quick to point out the sudden error, as well as the fact that plenty of blatantly offensive content related to white pride and Nazism were as visible as ever.

Sunday afternoon, Twitter acknowledged “an error with search results for certain terms,” and in a series of tweets Monday night, the company tried to explain what went wrong.

The tweets explain that the company’s new policy attempting to restrict sensitive content used “a list of terms that frequently appear alongside adult content.” That list was “out of date” and “incorrectly included terms that are primarily used in non-sensitive contexts.” This resulted in search results coming up empty for those terms. “It is not consistent with our values as a company.”

Those explanations contradict each other. If the terms were “incorrectly included,” then it is irrelevant if they were “out of date,” and if they were “out of date,” that implies that there was a time when it made sense to censor content related to LGBTQ identities. The error is reminiscent of the many cases of school filtering programs that block LGBTQ-related educational content while still allowing access to anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

In a series of lengthy threads, historian Angus Johnston of StudentActivism.net explained how nonsensical Twitter’s approach was to try to filter search results based on content. For example, he noted when the bug was first apparent over the weekend that many reclaimed terms were disallowed, so while “lesbian” could be searched, “dyke” could not. Many ethnic slurs were banned, but “retarded” still worked, and white supremacist terms like “swastika,” “1488,” and “white pride” were all still allowed.

Johnston went on to argue that by limiting some terms, it’ll only encourage users who desire to post offensive content to co-opt language that is still permitted and badger others with the same intent as before. The approach isn’t actually making Twitter a safer place to exist, just one that has more hurdles for people who are not actually posting offensive content to build their communities and resist hate.

Twitter’s latest attempts to block abusive content is laudable, but as bi activists pointed out over the weekend, it can’t do so by reinforcing bi-erasure, one of the biggest forms of stigma bisexual people experience.

According to Twitter’s last tweet Monday night, their support staff is still correcting the mistake. “Once we are confident it is completely resolved, we’ll share an update here.” While the LGBTQ-related searches appear to be working in the meantime, it’s unclear if perfectly appropriate content is still being filtered out — or how much.