Twitter’s “Public Square” Analogy Is Completely Delusional

The art of excusing toxic behavior and denying the impact

In 2015, Twitter was on the verge of irrelevance. The company recorded its first quarterly dip in monthly active users and Facebook had emerged as the clear winner of social media. The outlook wasn’t pretty.

Then the 2016 election happened.

Surely enough, Twitter began to attract more attention than ever before thanks to the new president of the United States — a notorious celebrity figure who has been using the platform religiously since 2011. Although his tweets are often incendiary, combative and factually inaccurate, the world is fixated on his account. With every post, the president typically intends to either paint himself in a positive light or someone else in a negative light.

But it doesn’t matter what he shares or when he shares it. The media is there to report on it and his audience is there to spread it. The platform serves as a powerful and effective line of communication to his loyal supporters.

As a company, Twitter has received plenty of criticism for allowing the president to use the channel however he pleases (including to abuse others and spread falsehoods), but CEO Jack Dorsey stands by the notion that Twitter is a “public square” for the world. Whether he’s in front of Rolling Stone, WIRED, Bill Simmons, Joe Rogan or the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dorsey’s message is always the same: He believes people see Twitter as a public square where anyone can say anything, which means valuable and harmful conversations are both inevitable. However, when someone harasses or berates another person, he argues that “concerned citizens” will call out that behavior or someone who oversees the square will “have a word” with this individual to change their behavior.

One fundamental problem: An actual public square doesn’t have the instantaneous amplification of retweets, comments and likes. And Twitter certainly hasn’t made an attempt to change the president’s behavior. In public, you can easily ignore someone spewing bigotry or misinformation. On Twitter, no one ignores the president. And our cultural obsession with his account won’t go away until he’s out of office. The social platform is a petri dish for his toxic behavior, and this empty analogy does nothing more than excuse his actions and that of many others on the platform.

If Twitter is a public square, then the president’s soapbox is the size of a city block. His influence is essentially immeasurable (only Twitter knows the real numbers) and mainstream journalists have no choice but to cover every reckless sentence and word — spelled correctly or not.

Six years ago, the president published a run-of-the-mill climate change denial tweet that received a few hundred engagements. If he shared the same message tomorrow, it would undoubtedly reach tens of millions of people in minutes. On average, each of his tweets receives 100,000+ engagements and generates extensive media coverage across all sides of the political spectrum. (After the release of the Mueller report summary in March, his celebratory post led to more than 600,000 combined likes, comments and shares.) Since being elected into office on November 8, 2016, he has tweeted more than 7,600 times with an average of 9+ tweets per day.

Twitter, much like the president, has been living a lie. The platform serves as a dedicated hub for misinformation across many corners of the Internet, including anti-vaccine rhetoric and endless fake news. But it’s fair to say that the president — who has now made over 9,000 false statements during his time in office — is clearly Twitter’s most influential user.

In a recent podcast interview with The Ringer, Dorsey briefly discussed climate change as a serious crisis that desperately needs to be part of a “significant conversation” around the world. The outlook, of course, is extremely alarming and could be catastrophic for many areas of our planet at the current rate, and it’s safe to say this is one of the most critical issues facing humanity. The president, meanwhile, has long established himself as someone who does not believe this is an issue, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. He insists on feeding his base exactly what they want to hear and using Twitter as the primary means to do so.

In some circles, the social network still serves as a critical tool in society with a unique opportunity to set itself apart from Facebook and others. However, the public’s level of trust is eroding by the minute. Dorsey has even said that misinformation is technically unsolvable because “we’ve been lying as humans forever.” And although fake news appears to be improving to some degree, the act of silencing thousands of trolls doesn’t take anything away from the president’s harmful influence.

In terms of censorship, some critics argue that Twitter still leans far left with its rules and regulations. The left, meanwhile, argues that the company has been too soft on staunch right-wingers who share conspiracy theories and inflammatory opinions. Ultimately, there is no winner and it will only become more difficult as they continue to face tough questions from both sides.

While people will occasionally get blocked for debatable reasons (and probably more often as the platform leans into automation), the president is an indispensable user who faces no risk of removal. He means everything to Twitter and Twitter means everything to him. And whether or not the company actually follows through on labeling politician tweets that violate its rules, their path to becoming a righteous platform is unclear at best. In the company’s own words: “There will always be more to do.”

As recently uncovered by The New Yorker, the only other media outlet that might be as important to the president as Twitter is Fox News. America’s most-watched cable network — known for its dubious reporting and highly partisan content — basically serves as a mainstream propaganda machine for him.

Unfortunately this is only half of the problem: Fox News is his teleprompter, but Twitter is his microphone. And per Dorsey’s analogy, the president can indeed use it to say anything he wants to an audience of millions, who will instantly consume and share it as 100% fact.

In the public square of America, that’s a dangerous fact.

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Scott Greer

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Owner + Consultant at Greer Interactive. I help businesses develop paid media strategies with an emphasis on design and empathy.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.