Forget the scores of think-pieces that crowded the web nearly a decade ago proclaiming that the 2011 season of revolution that toppled the oppressors and evil dictators was due to Twitter’s capacity to organize and channel democracy. Yes, there were moments when we thought this tool, this amazing social network could help good people and the oppressed liberate themselves from tyranny. But Twitter was also relatively new and we were quick to celebrate it’s potential while ignoring its inherent flaws.
From far away, I watched scores of 30 second Twitter videos of the celebrations in Tahrir Square as Hosni Mubarak resigned from office, thinking that the people would now elect a progressive leader who would bring true democracy and human rights to the complicated nation. Instead, Mohammad Morsi became successor — a somehow more brutal autocrat affiliated with the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood.
As Twitter evolved in the U.S., bad actors and the opportunistic have exploited the social network, taking advantage of the complete lack of content regulation — a practice and policy supported by a CEO who has washed his hands of the slightest responsibility of what people read on his platform.
As they say, when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. Twitter can no longer be thought of as a conduit for change, but rather a highly sophisticated aggregator of misinformation.
We now know that there is no bottom on Twitter, no depth to which the worst of any ideas can be published and spread. Propagating the idea that Hillary Clinton runs a child-sex ring from a pizza restaurant? Totally fine. Harassing the parents of dead children, claiming the Sandy Hook shooting was all faked? Not in violation of Twitter rules. Claiming the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people was a “false flag” operation? Contributing to a “healthy conversational environment!”
It’s hard to see what content would get someone blocked from the platform.
Not only are false and dangerous claims totally permissible to be shared by a high-profile account that to some, may look like real news, but the burden of policing and debunking content falls on real journalists. It’s insane. Reporters in shrinking newsrooms across the country barely have the bandwidth to report actual news. How much time and energy must be wasted by reporters to keep Twitter honest?
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it. — Brandolini’s Law
Yet, real journalists have somehow found the time to thoroughly debunk virtually every high-profile conspiracy theory, propagated by Alex Jones or not. Has the act of doing so removed misinformation from Twitter? No, it hasn’t. Because at the very minimum that would require someone from Twitter to act as an arbiter and ban posts or accounts that are designed to incite hate, mistrust and violence.
One of Twitter’s fascinating effect on our culture is the idea that you can find ways to pack a lot of information into 140 characters or less. From this Tweet, implicit is the reality that Twitter is a platform with a lot of content disguised as news that is factually false, and Twitter knows it’s so widespread, it can no longer be contained.
The question we ought to ask is what would it take? What resources are necessary to scale a mechanism to remove toxic content? Can editors or mods be hired to review flagged posts? Can they volunteer? Can we down-vote like Reddit?
What content moderation models were imagined, stress-tested and proposed? Hell, what was even thrown up on a whiteboard in a brainstorming meeting?
Or, is Twitter truly helpless, with nothing else to offer besides the content policy equivalent of a shruggie emoji?
I don’t believe that Twitter or its users are helpless. The potential still exists for it to function as a tool that can organize us against the evil in our world. But to get there, it requires leadership, a willingness to do the right thing but not the easy thing and the follow-through to solve a problem that has real consequences in our country. The irony isn’t lost on me that this is rant is on Medium, an innovation from Twitter has evolved into an incredible platform for sharing fresh thinking and new perspectives. The potential is there to fix this, but Twitter must ultimately make the choice to do what’s needed.
Or we all need to find another tool to slay our dragons.