By Lee Christie
In December 2011, the atheist community mourned the tragic loss of one of its most prominent members, Christopher Hitchens, creating the Twitter hash-tag #GodIsNotGreat – named for his most notable book. When the hash-tag trended, hoards of angry Christians, apparently unaware of the meaning, issued death threats to atheists. The hash-tag disappeared from the trending list, and atheists the world-over (including myself) stood-up and cried “censorship”, accusing Twitter of delisting the hash-tag on purpose to pander to the Christian protest. It now seems more likely that the hash-tag simply fell out of popularity, as trending topics eventually do.
Fast-forward to 11th April 2012, when a dozen-or-so Twitter accounts were suspended. The common theme: atheism. Clearly this was either an intentional act on Twitter’s part, or a malicious mass-reporting of atheists by Christians abusing the system! This was the conclusion leapt to by the atheist community, as many (including myself, again) stood-up and cried “censorship”, launching the hash-tag: #AntiAtheistCampaign and hassling Twitter to reinstate the accounts.
Tim Farley of Skeptools took it upon himself to do a more detailed investigation. It turns out that Twitter has recently launched an “aggressive” crack-down on spam, which was announced on the official Twitter blog a week prior. The behaviour of not only these accounts, but many non-atheist accounts, was mistakenly categorised as spam, likely due to heavy use of the at-mention feature. Other, more prominent atheist Tweeters who do not aggressively at-mention other users were not suspended, leading to the conclusion that the suspensions were just false positives in a spam detection algorithm. Farley also notes that in many cases, the activism style of some of these users (referred to as “bigot baiting”) may qualify as actual spamming, and lists some examples on his blog.
I will be on the lookout for any hint of atheists being censored on Twitter for a 3rd time, but hopefully with a more skeptical eye on whether it’s actually happening or not.