Twitter Caves to Political Pressure, Will Kill Suggested Users List

Twitter's "suggested users" list will be going away, amid a California political controversy. But, should it? Is it OK to violate Twitter's freedom to promote any user it chooses to?

The AP does a very good job of stating the facts: Basically, that Twitter has promised the drop or change the list, which is presented to people after they sign-up as a way to get them started on the service.

Last month, politicos in California noticed that the list included the Democrats' gubernatorial candidates, but not the Republican candidates. Ignite minor firestorm.

Republican candidates have since been added to the list, resulting is many more followers for Republicans, the AP reports. (But, not that many).

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said Monday (in Malaysia of all places) that the list, in its present form, will be going away, replaced by something "more programmatically chosen." Which seems to mean that future lists will be selected by a robot.

I object to this, on several grounds:

First, Twitter has a right to list anyone it wants. Now, I happen to think the list is dopey and quickly dumped everyone I had added from it, but it is Twitter's right to list whomever it chooses. Moreover, it does provide a service to new users as they enter the Twitterverse.

The non-Republican list wasn't, as best I can tell, intended as Republican bashing so much as it was created by Twitter employees and reflected their interests and biases. As proof of this, among national political figures, both Democrats and Republicans were always listed.

Second, it is reasonably possible that since the Republicans running for California are not especially well known, that Twitter simply did not think about them when compiling the list. Perhaps it was drawn from users who already had large followings? Or not updated often enough to reflect the gubernatorial race?

The point is that while Fox News has a responsibility as a news organization to live up to its "fair and balanced" claim, Twitter is not a news organization and has no such obligation.

It may be good business for Twitter to be more inclusive in its suggestions to new users, but, that is a decision for Twitter to make, not political pressure groups.

Third, as for a new list, if it includes political figures, it may end up just like the old list.

If the new list is automatically selected from "most followed" users, it is likely to reflect the overall bias of the Twitter community. I would bet Twitter users are a tad left leaning, which would again zero out some Republicans unless special efforts were made to add them.

So much for a "programmatically chosen" list.

If Twitter gets rid of political figures altogether, then its suggested user list will lack the diversity of interests that makes Twitter so interesting and useful. Many politicians and their backers use Twitter as an effective means to quickly reach supporters.

A "suggested users" list without political figures would thus leave out an important group of Twitter users, which would be bad for everyone.

The AP notes that the list controversy "contributed to a decision by the California Fair Political Practices Commission to hold hearings next year. The commission plans to examine whether it needs to regulate how campaigns intersect with social media."

That means we will be hearing more about this. I do not see a way to legislate what amounts to editorializing by a business to its customers, but it would not surprise me to see someone try.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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