After users noticed last week that the terms “bisexual” and “bisexuality” were turning up no search results on Twitter, the company responded to criticism from LGBTQ advocates on Tuesday, apologizing and blaming a “technical issue” for the error. As it turns out, Twitter used an outdated list of terms associated with porn to determine what constituted sensitive material.
In a series of tweets, Twitter’s official support account explained why “certain words related to sexuality did not populate complete results.” Twitter’s new media policy suppresses sensitive content. In order to determine what is sensitive, Twitter claims it uses several “signals,” one of which is a list of terms that “frequently appear alongside adult content.” “Many of these words on the list are not inherently explicit, which is why they must be used alongside other signals to determine if content is sensitive,” Twitter stated, before admitting the list was “out of date, had not been maintained and incorrectly included terms that are primarily used in non-sensitive contexts.”
Twitter said it had updated the list and would be making changes over the following 24 hours. It does seem that Twitter’s changes have just starting to go into effect: As of Tuesday morning, a Twitter search for “bisexual” by Gizmodo turned up three pictures and no videos.
Twitter started cracking down on sensitive content while implementing stricter rules against sexual harassment. The changes were inspired by the #WomenBoycottTwitter protest, which was a response to Rose McGownan’s Twitter suspension after the actor tweeted about sexual abuse. Blocking the term for a sexual orientation, however, poses obvious problems.
“Every bi-activist knows the problems of trying to search for bi-content on the web and some public wifi systems block it altogether, even when it’s nothing to do with sex, because bisexual is seen as a dodgy word in itself,” Kate Harrad, a campaigner for The Bisexual Index, told the BBC last week. “This is why Twitter needs to be very sensitive to any filtering that reduces access to bi content, and very aware of the problem of bisexual erasure.”
The company did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for further comment on the technical error or a request for other terms that are on the list. But a quick search showed that many terms which, as Twitter said, “frequently appear alongside adult content” do not turn up results for photos, videos, or news on the site.