Public Citizen News / September-October 2022
By David Rosen
This article appeared in the September/October 2022 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
Former President Donald Trump’s social media platform Truth Social engages in inexplicable censorship of both conservative and liberal viewpoints, according to a Public Citizen report released in August. Despite being marketed as an uncensored platform for free speech, the site is governed by heavy-handed terms of service that are more restrictive than any similar platform, the report found.
“Truth Social is far from the haven of free speech that Trump promised, as even conservative viewpoints and links have been shadow-banned,” said Cheyenne Hunt-Majer, a lobbyist with Public Citizen and author of the report. “It’s not at all clear how Truth Social determines which content will be labled as sensitive, why some content is censored after it’s posted, and why other content seems to be preemptively blocked from appearing on the platform at all.”
Hunt-Majer set up an account on Truth Social and documented numerous instances of shadow-banned content firsthand. A shadow ban fully or partially blocks a user’s content without warning, notice, or recourse. Banned content included:
- Coverage of the January 6th Committee hearings;
- Pro-choice opinions;
- Pro-gun messages by country music star Blake Shelton;
- Criticism of U.S. support for Ukraine; and
- Links to far-right website Breitbart.
In some instances, posted content did not appear on the site for days or ever. And in one case, Hunt-Majer’s viral video highlighting the absurdity of Truth Social’s censorship appears to have triggered a change of heart among site moderators regarding the phrase “abortion is healthcare.”
The report found that Truth Social’s content moderation practices lack the transparency, consistency, or nuance typical of major social media platforms. Unlike Twitter, Truth Social bans all sexual content and explicit language. Its terms of service also allow moderators to ban anyone whose content is deemed “libelous, slanderous, or otherwise objectionable.”
Former President Trump was banned indefinitely from Twitter and Facebook after the platforms found that his posts incited violence on Jan. 6, 2021, in violation of their terms of service. In response, he launched his own platform, Truth Social, a year later.
Trump described the platform as a haven for free speech where content would be only sparsely moderated and not censored on the basis of political ideology. But the young platform was quickly marred by accusations of biased censorship and account suspensions.
While Truth Social promised minimal and transparent content moderation, early users reported experiencing bans after selecting usernames or authoring posts that made fun of or criticized the former president and his allies. Early versions of the platform’s terms of service even required users to agree not to “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.”
While that provision has since been removed, users continue to report that they have experienced censorship and bans after talking about topics that are unflattering to the former president, including the Jan. 6 Committee hearings.
Truth Social’s seemingly frequent use of shadow banning leaves affected users with no recourse when a post that conforms with the terms of service is wrongfully blocked. But Hunt-Majer found a way to publicly shame Truth Social into a change of heart.
In June 2022, Truth Social users reported that any post containing the phrase “abortion is healthcare” would automatically be shadow banned from the platform. When Hunt-Majer attempted to post the phrase “abortion is healthcare,” she received the standard notification that her “truth had been posted,” which would normally signify that the post would be visible on her personal profile and on her feed. Instead, the post was nowhere to be found.
In response, Hunt-Majer made a video explaining that her so-called “truth” had seemingly disappeared into a black hole. The video went viral on Tik Tok, garnering more than 1.2 million views as of this writing. Five days later, Hunt-Majer’s post on “abortion is healthcare” suddenly appeared.
“Truth Social was marketed as an alternative platform for users seeking less content moderation, but the site’s terms of service are so broad and so ill-defined that it’s effectively more restrictive than Twitter, the site’s closest competitor,” said Hunt-Majer. “It’s not inherently problematic that Truth Social moderates posts, but the lack of transparency could lead users to believe that they are engaging in an open forum when, in reality, they’re in a curated echo chamber. Studies show that Americans generally want clear and transparent content moderation policies. Without that, user frustration with Truth Social is likely to continue growing.”