Did Twitter Censor #GodIsNotGreat?

[Executive summary: Betteridge’s Law (probably) applies]

The Twitter furore over the #GodIsNotGreat hash tag has pretty much died down now, but there’s one branch of the debate that is still getting comments and retweets. Here’s an example from johnwilander.

#GodIsNotGreat pulled from trends because christians protest. But #ReasonsToBeatYourGirlfriend was allowed. Stay classy, @Twitter.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the hashtag vanished from the list of global trending topics on Friday morning. And this conspiracy theory leapt up almost immediately. As far as I can see, none of the people repeating this claim have any evidence to back it up – which is more than somewhat ironic given Hitchens’ evidence-driven view of the world.

The argument seems to go like this: At one point the hashtag was trending. Then Christians got upset and starting making death threats aimed at the people who started the trend. Soon after that, the hashtag was no longer trending. Therefore Twitter must have given in to Christian bullying and censored the hashtag.

Whilst it all sounds frighteningly possible, I hope I don’t have to spell out the flaws in the logic. If you can’t work it out for yourself then I recommend the Wikipedia article on Correlation does not imply Causation.

I could be wrong here. There might be some irrefutable piece of evidence proving conclusively that Twitter deliberately censored the hashtag. If there is, then I haven’t seen it and I’d be grateful to anyone who could bring it to my attention.

There is, however, some evidence that Twitter didn’t censor the hashtag. On Friday morning, as the debate still raging, a Facebook friend in Canada pointed out that it was still trending there. In the middle of the afternoon someone pointed out that it was still trending in San Francisco. So if Twitter were censoring it, they weren’t doing a very good job. There’s even someone who apparently works for Twitter saying that they didn’t do it.

Of course, none of this is conclusive evidence that Twitter didn’t censor the hashtag. But balancing some evidence for non-censorship against absolutely no evidence at all for the censorship I know which side I come out on.

All of which leaves us searching for an explanation for the sudden disappearance. And, to be honest, I don’t think we really need to look too hard. Things stop being trending topics all the time. Things have to drop out of the list so that new things can come in. Otherwise the list would constantly be full of nonsense about Justin Bieber and Twilight. The Twitter trending topics algorithm can’t possibly just measure the popularity of topics. That would be incredibly dull. Instead, what it does is to look for changes in popularity. A steady buzz of the same few million people talking about a particular topic doesn’t get noticed, but a sudden increase in the number of people discussing the same topic does. The Buffer blog has a good explanation of this and the official Twitter blog says much the same thing.

I’m sure that this won’t convince the conspiracy theorists. “Ah,” they’ll say, “That’s all very convenient. But that just gives Twitter an easy way to cover up their censorship..” Which is true, I suppose, but hardly a basis for a rational discussion.

And that’s the most disappointing thing to come out of this affair. The people making this accusations are fans of Christopher Hitchens. You would hope they’d be from the more rational end of the spectrum. You’d hope that they would be above making accusations like this without evidence. I guess no-one is immune from irrationality.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here. And lay my cards on the table. And other clichés that Hitchens would despise.

Twitter (probably) didn’t censor the #GodIsNotGreat hashtag.

Update: The author of the tweet I quoted above seems to agree with me.

Hitchens’ Last Laugh

This morning I woke up to the terrible (although not completely unexpected) news that Christopher Hitchens had died. The rational community has, of course, lost one of its most erudite and interesting members. But it seems that Christopher had one last trick up his sleeve.

As with most breaking news these days, I found out about his death from Twitter. I checked my Twitter feed as I got up at about 6am. A few people that I follow were already awake and discussing it. As a mark of respect, many of those tweets were tagged with the name of Hitchens’ best known book “God Is Not Great“. And then more and more people started to do that. And before too long, the hashtag #GodIsNotGreat was listed as one of Twitter’s worldwide trending topics. At which point it started to go a bit weird.

All around the world religious people who knew nothing at all about Christopher Hitchens, his books or his death were looking at Twitter and seeing the tag #GodIsNotGreat. And that annoyed many of them immensely. So they started tweeting on the subject. Their tweets seemed to largely fall into three categories.

1/ What is this? And why is it trending?

2/ Attempts to inject their own beliefs into the stream – “God isn’t just great – he’s the GREATEST!!” (from someone called foolishdenise – you couldn’t make this up)

3/ Threats to kill whoever had started the hashtag (all very Christian) [UPDATE: Replaced a tweet with a rather NSFW background with another expressing the same sentiment]

Of course, all of these new tweets all included the hashtag. So that just helped ensure that the hashtag became even more popular. Hitchens fans replied, pointing out why the hashtag was trending (and inviting them to read the book) and the hashtag was tweeted and retweeted and commented on and argued over more than pretty much any other hashtag I’ve followed all year. For most of the morning the Tweetdeck column I set up to follow the tag was moving too fast for me to follow it.

At some point in the morning, the hashtag disappeared from the list of trending topics. Some people claimed that Twitter had removed it deliberately in response to the Christian death threats. But it seems slightly ironic for Hitchens fans to claim something like that without any firm evidence. I suspect that it’s more likely that once a hashtag reaches a plateau of activity then Twitter’s algorithm ignores it – otherwise the top trend would always be Justin Bieber (as two people pointed out to me). Apparently it’s still trending in Canada. But I’m not sure what that proves about anything.

One tweet in particular from luketadams summed things up for me.

Hitchens dies. His book #GodisNotGreat trends. Religious people threaten violence. The point of his book is proven. Hitchens for the win.

It’s tempting to imagine Hitchens looking down on the storm that his death has caused and laughing. But that would go against everything that he believed in.

So don’t do that. Instead, reread his articles, buy his books, watch videos of him demolishing his opponents in debate. And remember the great mind that we have lost.