Why Is Twitter Censoring Raúl Castro?

Twitter’s crusade against coordinated behavior is complicated—especially in places like Cuba.

Raúl Castro with a Cuban flag, Twitter logos, and text reading "Account Suspended."
Raúl Castro’s Twitter account remained offline as of Monday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alexandre Meneghini-Pool/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

Raúl Castro is being censored by Twitter.

On Sept. 12, the Twitter account belonging to the octogenarian former president of Cuba, who still serves as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, was suspended. Accounts of several state-run media outlets including Granma, Cubadebate, and Mesa Redonda were also shut down, all within a few hours of one another. While the media accounts were restored the next day, Raúl Castro’s remained offline as of Monday.

In an email to OnCuba, a local independent media outlet, Twitter’s director of global communications, Ian Plunkett, said the suspensions resulted from attempts to “artificially amplify or disrupt conversations through the use of multiple accounts,” and referred to its terms concerning “overlapping” accounts and coordination between them. When I reached out to Plunkett, he offered no further comment on the matter.

It’s true: These accounts do regularly repeat and redistribute one another’s messages. This might seem artificial or manipulative from Twitter’s standpoint, but the suspensions served mainly to reduce access to information in Cuba—a country where this is already a pervasive problem. For Cubans, state media accounts and those of leaders like Castro provide a glimpse of what government leaders think and care most about at any given moment. In a country where independent and foreign media are heavily restricted, sources like these—even with their biases—are a critical avenue for public information.

Several of the accounts represent outlets that are “the most important for understanding the Cuban government’s official version [of facts] in moments of crisis or uncertainty,” tweeted independent journalist Elaine Díaz, an advocate for free speech in Cuba, who criticized the move.

Although the media accounts now are back up and running, Raúl Castro’s account is still offline.

Beyond what Plunkett offered, Twitter hasn’t given much information about how Fidel’s little brother got himself kicked off the platform. We can’t even look over his recent tweets to get a hint. With the account suspended, Twitter’s comprehensive once-public record of Castro’s tweets has disappeared. When you click https://twitter.com/RaulCastroR, you get Twitter’s generic “Account Suspended” page. This leaves the public with no way of knowing what Castro might have said or done that triggered the move. Although Twitter sometimes retains archives from state-affiliated accounts it has removed, these (often enormous) files can be difficult to access and read, especially for people in places like Cuba, where slow internet connections mean that downloading large files can take a very long time.

It’s conceivable that Castro ran afoul of Twitter’s rules. Since 2016, the company has amped up its monitoring and closures of accounts that engage in coordinated, state-sponsored activities. This stems from legitimate concerns about the harms—including disinformation in democratic elections and outright mob violence—from coordinated online campaigns, especially when they are backed by powerful government entities. But many heads of state, past and present, artificially amplify their own messages on Twitter and elsewhere.

Think of India’s Narendra Modi and our very own Donald Trump, who depend on the instant reach and power guaranteed by an active Twitter account. They are well-known for promoting themselves and their political agendas (and for insulting opponents, in Trump’s case) on Twitter and thus far have managed to keep their accounts active.

These men appear to be protected by Twitter’s stance on “world leaders,” which echoes Díaz’s point: In a 2018 blog post, Twitter stated that “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.” The post offers no concrete definition of the term “world leader.”

It’s true that Raúl Castro is no longer the head of state for Cuba. But his remains one of the most powerful voices in the country, and Cubans deserve the same access to information as people in India or the U.S.

It’s tempting to ask whether Castro’s Cubanness has something to do with it. Cuba is among a handful of countries that the U.S. has long treated as a legal and political exception, and companies here often mimic this behavior. Iran is another example. In a June recap of recent suspensions of state-affiliated accounts in Iran, Twitter charged that the suspended accounts had tweeted “global news content, often with an angle that benefited the diplomatic and geostrategic views of the Iranian state.” What government leader or ally doesn’t behave this way on social media?

The abysmal human rights records of countries like Cuba and Iran may leave the company feeling justified in such decisions, but judging government-affiliated accounts on this basis is not—and cannot be—Twitter’s job. And we don’t know much about the methodologies and criteria that the company uses to address concerns about coordinated behavior online. All we have are the broad brushstrokes used in blog posts and policy statements like the ones cited above. How can we trust that Twitter is working to preserve access to information and protect the public interest, when we don’t know what tools or methods it employs?

Onlookers may feel a little shiver of schadenfreude at the thought of this communist former head of state, who presided over a decade’s worth of free speech violations in Cuba, being censored by a private company in the uber-capitalist free market U.S. But when Twitter shuts down Castro, or any major public official, it is not so much the public official who loses out. It’s the people who lose access to yet another source of information.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.