#Flotilla Censored?

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Tweeters
and observers The Guardian, TechCrunch, and The Arabist have been wondering if Twitter censored hashtag #Flotilla and search term "flotilla" when it began trending on Sunday night. #Flotilla refers to a group of aid ships sailing to Gaza which were intercepted by the Israeli Defense Force prior to reaching their destination. A number of deaths and casualties were reported, prompting a flurry of tweets from people following the progress of the ships.

However, when people tried to search "flotilla" on Twitter they got a "Twitter error" and no results. That same night, ealshafei tweeted that #Flotilla had apparently trended locally in places like Washington DC, Ireland, UK, Canada, Seattle, London, and SF, but was unavailable elsewhere, and was not trending globally. One tweeter speculated that this was because "it's a user account - @flotilla & that's why cannot trend worldwide. But it is trending locally", though clearly not in all localities.

In response, activists deliberately began using the hashtags #FreedomFlotilla and #GazaFlotilla, which then starting trending globally and locally. Once Twitter got wind of the problem, Sean Garret issued a few official tweets stating that:

We are investigating a technical issue that caused search errors for a short period of time this morning...Twitter facilitates the open exchange of info & opinions -- when that is hampered by a bug, we take it very seriously 10:55 AM May 31st

While not making explicit reference to the incident, his statements suggest #Flotilla's dissapearance was not intentional. TechCrunch gave details, noting that "the most likely explanation is that Twitter's recently updated trending topics algorithm mistakes #gaza and #flotilla for older news unrelated to current events" and this in turn triggered their spam filter when peoople began tweeting about #Flotilla this weekend.

If was a bug, the question still remains - Is it censorship if it is done by machines that think it's spam? The question itself assumes that machines are not political, that technology is inherantly politically neutral. This assumption is pretty prevalent - criticism of Twitter died down quickly after they admitted it was a technical error and fixed the problem. Though it most likely was, primarily because Twitter prides itself on being an open forum (like Garret mentioned), and because they have not censored results before, suspicion persists in the blogosphere and on Twitter because this was such a politically charged event.

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