Memphis, Tennessee, is a city with a storied past. A heartland of rock’n’roll, blues, gospel and country music, it’s the home of Graceland and FedEx, and a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. So it came as a surprise when Twitter decided to ban the city from its site.
Over the weekend, users of the social network discovered that simply tweeting the word “Memphis” was enough to land them with an automatic 12-hour suspension, and a requirement to delete the tweet.
According to the moderation messages, doing so broke Twitter’s rules on the dissemination of personal information – and to be fair to the site, Memphis is the home address of more than 600,000 people, though most postal carriers require more specificity to delivery a letter.
A Twitter spokesperson confirmed the blocks were an error. “Earlier today, there was a system issue impacting accounts that tweeted the word ‘Memphis’,” the company said in a statement.
“The issue mistakenly requested that account owners delete those Tweets and temporarily limited their account features. The affected accounts are now reinstated and this issue has been resolved.”
In the intervening time, news of the ban spread around the social network through whispers and allusions. References to “the M-word” and “M******” were common, as users reacted with horror to seeing unsuspecting observers ask what was wrong with saying “Memphis” before promptly receiving a ban in turn.
It’s really weird how spending just an hour not allowed to say the word “Memphis” so quickly causes you to interpret the word as having some kind of obscene quality or shape in your mind. I can now comprehend using the word “Memphis!” as a cuss, for example on receiving bad news
— mcc (@mcclure111) March 14, 2021
Twitter did not explain why Memphis was blocked, but some users speculated that an attempt to prevent a specific user’s personal information being shared was incorrectly entered. “What’s possible is a Twitter staffer tried to block a street address, but the postal syntax acted as an escape sequence, or the original was multi-line and they only pasted the city,” wrote Swift on Security.
The company has a history of accidentally taking moderation a bit further than intended, though. Notoriously, Jack Dorsey himself, Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive, was banned from the site temporarily in 2016, due to “an internal mistake”.
In 2018, Dorsey apologised for “unfairly” filtering 600,000 accounts from search results, applying a so-called “shadowban” on the users, which included members of Congress, based on the behaviour of accounts that were following them. “We decided that wasn’t fair, and corrected,” Dorsey said at the time.