Twitter Ends List Service After Democratic Favoritism Surfaces

November 17th, 2009 11:16 AM
Twitter has announced that it will end a list service that blatantly favored Democratic politicians by attracting viewers to their profiles while excluding GOP officials from the service.

The list service provided new Twitter users with lists of prominent message-posters they might like to follow. Watchdog groups discovered late last month that Democratic officials were prominently listed by the service, and gaining large swaths of followers as a result, while many prominent GOP politicians were excluded.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has since withdrawn his bid for Governor, was one suggested user, and had roughly 1.2 million followers when the Associated Press reported the story on October 27. His opponent in the race for the Democratic nomination also appeared on the lists, and garnered 960,000 followers.

But none of the GOP's gubernatorial contenders appeared on the lists, and all three had fewer than 5,000 followers.
"It's a dumb move," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, an independent nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles. "Somebody should have been thinking that it's pretty obvious you don't put just the Democrats on it."

Such apparent favoritism does not violate any California campaign regulations, but it has caught the attention of the state's watchdog agency. The California Fair Political Practices Commission has formed a committee to examine how campaigns intersect with social media and to determine whether additional regulations are necessary.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said in a March posting on his blog that he and a handful of other company employees make the final choice about who will be featured, a list that has grown to about 500 people.

He compared it to "your local book store's staff picks," a benign way of introducing new authors.

New users are linked automatically to 20 people they might want to follow, selected at random from the list of 500, but can reject or include as many from the master list as they like...

"Our observation of the list is it tends to be left-leaning politicians or celebrities. [Gubernatorial candidate Rep.] Tom Campbell is neither, so we're not surprised not to be on there," Campbell spokesman James Fisfis said.

Said [State Insurance Commissioner Steve] Poizner spokeswoman Bettina Inclan: "We think there's no doubt that getting a Twitter recognition by being featured on the suggested users list gives an advantage. It does make it an uneven playing field."...

"The suggested user list has been controversial for a while," [Twitter co-founder Evan] Williams said. "It's gone on too long, and I desperately want to kill it or evolve it."
Twitter has now announced that it will replace the list service with "something that is more programmatically chosen, something that actually delivers more relevant suggestions," according to Stone. The company declined to provide further details.

The political disparity in the list service was probably not deliberate, and most likely was reflective of the political homogeneity of Twitter's staff. Still, Twitter can be a powerful tool, and its owners must take care not to restrict accessibility on political grounds.