When Twitter announced a change to their censorship policy in January, Twitter users and pundits rose dutifully to the defense of free speech. Critics said the company sought to silence voices of dissent in compliance with requests from autocratic governments and anti-transparency bureaucracies.
The uproar, however, may have been in haste. Twitter has always had an obligation to remove illegal content; their new policy simply ensures prohibited tweets disappear only within the borders of the offended country. Offense alone also provides no grounds for removal. On its website, Twitter says it deletes tweets only after receiving “a valid and scoped request from an authorized entity.”
While this change in policy won’t affect you if Twitter is your go-to for funny pictures or Foursquare check-ins, activists or rebels may be worried that government intervention will cause this vessel of communication to be lost to them forever. For those trying to avoid inciting the wrath of those who wish to censor you, we’ve compiled these tips that will help you escape prying authoritative eyes.
This article was written by John Flanagan, a Vermont-based writer, film fan, and intermittent bon vivant.
Dodge the Radar
Twitter will notify you directly if you’re being censored, unless they’re legally prohibited from doing so. You can check for yourself by viewing your own tweets. Censored tweets from others appear in your timeline with a message reading, “Tweet Withheld: This tweet from (@Username) has been withheld in: (your country).” If a particular Twitter user whom you follow has been blocked, a similar message will appear: “(@Username) Withheld: This account has been withheld in: (Your country).”
Fret not, however, because there are a few simple tricks to get around these blocks.
Change Your Country
Twitter wields the hushcloth according to your account’s “Country” setting. The company guesses where you live based upon the IP address of your computer, phone, iPad, etc., and changing this location is a cinch. Here’s how:
- Select “Settings” from the dropdown on the top right of your screen and click “Account” from the menu on the left.
- Scroll down to “Country.”
- Select another country that’s not your own and save your change. Keep in mind that setting “Country” to “Worldwide” won’t work, you must choose a specific location.
Watch Your Wording
Eschew censorship by referencing sensitive material indirectly in your tweets. For instance, instead of referring to a controversial despot by name, tweet about “the fourth president of Egypt” or “the successor of Hafez al-Assad.” While this approach may evade detection, the cleverly-worded content continues to violate laws.
l33tspeak (“leet” or “elite” speak) doesn’t just belong to hackers — it has its benefit for dissidents as well. Certain censors filter certain words, so where “revolt” might not fly, “r3v0lt” sneaks through undetected. In English, substituting ASCII characters for letters of the Roman alphabet, or using intentional misspellings, helps evade trackers. Many languages have their own version of l33tspeak, such as Russian’s Padonkaffsky Jargon and Japanese’s Kusachu. Like clever wording, however, this approach is still illegal, and thus grounds for removal.
Respond to Your Gagging
Twitter may remove tweets out of legal responsibility, but they hold no qualms over declaring what they bowdlerize. Recently, they’ve expanded their partnership with Chilling Effects, which now publishes requests for Twitter to withhold content. The site also posts Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notices. While Twitter works with Chilling Effects on your behalf, there are some steps you can take for further action.
Twitter’s new policy pertains only to the original tweet, so censored content will appear in retweeted posts. If you’ve been censored, you can change your country of origin (see above) and then re-send the message. If you want to send another user’s withheld message, simply change your country, locate the censored tweet, and click retweet.
Challenge the Request
Twitter will restore withheld material if a blocked user obtains a court order overturning the request. If you have a tweet that you desperately want unblocked, contact your lawyer and see if you can’t get the law on your side.
Tweet Without Twitter
Twitter users revolted after their January announcement by staging a boycott. If snubbing is your brand of discord, why not fully commit?
Deactivate Your Account
To deactivate your Twitter account for good, follow these steps:
- Select Settings from the dropdown on the top right of your screen, and then click Account from the menu on the left.
- Scroll to the bottom and click Deactivate my account.
- Read Twitter’s plea for you to hang in there, and finally click Okay, fine, deactivate (@YourUsername).
After deleting your account, stay engaged by moseying over to the following offerings of Twitter alternatives.
Vibe: Vibe is a Twitter-esque app with which users “whisper” or “shout” anonymous messages to either a close range or far-reaching network of members, respectively.
Subjot: Subjot users curate the content in their feeds by selecting from a list of topics other users “jot” about.
Heello: Heello is really a barebones Twitter. A leading difference is that users send “pings” instead of tweets. Heello’s censors may be more dogmatic than Twitter’s, however. Under their Terms of Service, Heello reserves the right to change, suspend, or discontinue, “without limitation,” any feature, database, or content. Oh, and without notice.