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Is Twitter Protecting Ashton Kutcher?

Actor, entrepreneur, and Twitter celebrity Ashton Kutcher stands accused of cheating on his wife, Demi Moore. If you've been to the market this week, you've seen their pictures all over magazine covers. I've no idea if the charge is true. But it's a big story. Yet if you search Twitter for Kutcher's handle, @APlusK, you get a stream of off-topic or almost entirely supportive messages. Hmm.

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Kutcher in New York on Sept. 23 (Brian Harkin / Getty Images)

Actor and Internet entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher stands accused of cheating on his wife, the actress Demi Moore. If you've been to the market this week, you've seen their pictures all over the covers of Star and People magazine. I have no idea if the charge (made mainly by Star) is true. But it's a big deal in the celebosphere.

Kutcher is also a huge presence on Twitter, where he has more than 5,800,000 followers. Yet if you search Twitter for Kutcher's handle, @APlusK, you see this stream of messages. It's mostly on non-Topic-A subjects (sample: "@APlusK: How was the hike"). When the subject of The Cheatin' does come up, the twitter is usually supportive, as in:

marlooz: I don't believe @aplusk had an affair. I met him at #sxsw and all he talked about was his wife and the projects they’re working on together.

I submit this stream is not the mix of messages you'd expect right now in a direct, unfiltered communication between a huge Twitter celebrity and the messaging service's millions of participants at least some of whom must believe the Star. At the least you'd expect a lot of investigative "Did you do it, bro?" queries. But no.

All of which triggers--I'd almost say proves--an obsessive suspicion I've had, which is that Twitter somehow sanitizes the stream of messages that turn up when you search for one of its celebrity users, who include Britney Spears and Alyssa Milano.

I mean, this is America. If you really opened up a line of communication where every horny 20-year old dude sitting on a couch in a basement typed 140 characters about Alyssa Milano for the world to see ... well, would you really want to see that stream of tweets? People would ... criticize her acting! They'd bring up her famous ex boyfriends. They'd say she looked bad in that dress and otherwise comment on her appearance. Perhaps approvingly! I'm keeping it clean here. But it wouldn't be pretty.

And yet it is.

When I wrote that a few months ago, Milano actually sent a message to Twitter founder Evan Williams, who responded. Here's the interchange:

Interesting. cc: @ev RT @kausmickey: Does Twitter protect celebrities? http://bit.ly/4vIHld (via @atomsareenough) about 1 hour ago from TweetDeck

@Alyssa_Milano I think that guy has a pretty dire outlook on humans. :) about 1 hour ago from web in reply to Alyssa_Milano

So not a denial! Or even much of an attempt by "ev".

Seems obvious to me: Twitter needs celebrities to promote its service. Celebrities need the publicity, but also they need protection. Deal! It's not like Twitter doesn't have people who handle celebs. Yet when I mention this possibility to friends who are Twitter savants, they're not just scornful but often righteously scornful. Don't I know anything about Twitter and its philosophy? Don't I know it's technically impossible for Twitter to censor messages, given its architecture? I don't! But I'm not arguing that Twitter censors messages. If you post something nasty about @APlusK I'm sure it will go out to all your "followers," and be included on the list of messages on your Twitter page. I'm suggesting that Twitter somehow sanitizes search results--what turns up if someone who isn't your follower tries to find all messages that mention @APlusK.

If that happens, why would Twitter want to keep it a secret? Because it would reveal that Twitter's uncontrolled expressive democracy is a bit of a fake:

Here we thought we were meeting bigshots in a virtual public square, and really it was manipulated like the Truman Show.

Maybe I've made some hideous technical mistake. If so, let me know--I'm @kausmickey. Also, feel free to test the hypothetical Great Kutcher Firewall by posting critical items yourself and reporting back. Don't be too nasty! He seems like a nice enough fellow, even in the Star's coverage. And I don't want to get a letter from his famously bullying attorney, Martin Singer, whom I also hear is a nice enough guy. Hey, everybody's nice on Twitter!

But some may get extra help. ...

Update: Ted Frank twitters:

The critics of celebrities aren't as likely to use the "@" username. The fans will. Thus a T-search for username will be skewed.

Good point. A twitter search just for plain old "Ashton Kutcher" yields results that are slightly more negative--but only slightly. They're still much more benign than you'd expect to find in the state of nature. ... 12:07 p.m.