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Twitter vs Free Speech: Did Ex-CEO Dick Costolo Filter Hateful Tweets Against President Obama?

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"Democratic access" to information has been an idea long championed by Dick Costolo. The day before he stepped down as Twitter CEO, he made sure the idea resounded loud and clear with the public. Today, however, a report has surfaced, alleging he had ordered Twitter employees to filter hateful tweets against President Barack Obama during a Q&A session.

Costolo's directive was to secretly deploy an algorithm that would block abusive replies to the president following the hashtag #AskPOTUS, BuzzFeed reports. The order was allegedly so secret that even certain senior officials of the company were kept in the dark.

Costolo And Censorship

BuzzFeed cites at least three anonymous sources, including a former senior employee of Twitter. The algorithm, which was developed in-house, vetted "thousands of examples of abuse and harassing tweets," but employees were also said to manually weed out hate speech. A similar censorship method, one source claims, was used during a Q&A with transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner.

Costolo called the allegations "absurd."

"Total nonsense and laughably false as anybody who would speak on the record would tell you," Costolo tweeted.

Twitter reportedly staged these virtual town hall sessions out of its growing frustration over rival forums, such as Reddit, being able to hold Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) sessions with celebrities, thereby drawing the crowds.

'Civilized Conversations'

The high-profile Q&A with President Obama obviously aimed to pull more active users into the Twitter platform, which has suffered quarter after quarter of slow growth. Little did the public know, the Q&A was engineered to convey a friendly conversation with the president by leaving out the negative replies.

On the one hand, netizens could have those "civilized conversations without the hate even if you're a high-profile person," one source says. On the other, the censorship of hateful and abusive tweets against Obama creates a "double standard."

"We'll protect our celebrities," the source notes, "while the average user is out there subject to all kinds of horrible things."

Fighting Off Regulation

While many have touted Twitter as the "free speech wing of the free speech party," the social media site has also become the favorite platform of trolls and bashers precisely because the site has fought off the regulation of free speech.

And this was especially seen in instances when Twitter pushed back against the government. Pressure was mounting for technology and social media companies to hand over the profile info and activity logs of people linked to the WikiLeaks controversy in 2011.

But with the likes of Alexander Macgillivray, then Twitter's general counsel, helping to steer the ship amid the turbulent waters of free expression and surveillance, Twitter at least had the semblance of a democratic medium — where people could be critical of the state and not worry about being thrown under the bus during shady information requests from the government.

'Committed, Focused'

Costolo himself recognizes the value of Article 19 of the United Nations' human rights declaration in ensuring information flows freely throughout the social web.

"With billions now online, that right of access to information is a reality," Costolo claims in a 2015 interview with The Guardian a day before he stepped down. "Twitter allows that information from the source."

The BuzzFeed report on censorship casts doubt on Twitter's commitment to free speech, but the company maintains it is "committed [and] focused."

"We feel there are inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals," Twitter says, "but rather than go back and forth with BuzzFeed, we are going to continue our work on making Twitter a safer place."

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