Twitter, you'll crimp world leaders' tweets? Good luck with that
Commentary: Social media is at the center of media and politics, but its plan to get ready for what might come in 2020 seems weak. Let's ask Twitter’s CEO about it -- together.
Ian SherrFormer Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Two years ago, I asked seven questions about how you handled harassment, arguing, among other things, that you need to more clearly spell out enforcement policies for "newsworthy" people, including the president of the United States. I wanted to know what rules and standards you'd hold them to.
I'm glad you've clarified things -- a little. But the answer, after years of public debate about social media harassment by world leaders, amounts to little more than a digital slap on the wrist. I mean, you're essentially saying world leaders can tweet anything they want on Twitter.
It doesn't help that you seem unconcerned, @jack. Twitter's account posts weird tweets like "Uno!" and "hugs!" Meanwhile, you're tweeting about stuff like Golden State Warriors basketball, alkaline water and the cryptocurrency efforts being made by your other company, Square.
Eight months later, things don't seem much better.
So far, you've largely gotten a pass because lawmakers didn't really understand the problem. And now that Congress is mired in an impeachment probe of President
, it likely won't change in the near term.
But the government is increasingly looking in your direction. Presidential candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, say they want to regulate the tech industry. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the European Union and the UK government have begun ramping up enforcement against big tech and social media.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, meanwhile, took direct aim at Twitter, where Trump routinely lets loose, and too often, critics say, with tweets that go too far. "Trump's tweets incite violence, threaten witnesses, and obstruct justice," Harris said. "Big tech companies must be held accountable for how they allow him to abuse their platforms."
Since Twitter declined to make you available for an interview, again, I'm going to go ahead and ask my questions here instead on behalf of the 139 million people (and how many bots?) who use your platform on average every day.
1. What's your intention here? I guess that removing the ability to like, reply to or retweet a world leader's tweet that violates your rules could stop its viral spread or prevent the conversation it sparked on Twitter from getting out of hand.
But are you trying to teach that world leader what's OK and not OK to post on Twitter -- really? Or is it to get people like me to shut up about how often you let harassing tweets from world leaders slide?
2. If noteworthy people can cross the line, does that mean there's no line for them? This goes back to my long-held concerns. If there are effectively no rules for some people, because there are no real consequences, then what's the point of this new rule at all?
I make this point because some world leaders spread conspiracy theories and make provably false accusations that can cause real-world harm. In one example, Trump slammed an anonymous intelligence service whistleblower who raised concerns that helped lead to the beginning of an impeachment inquiry. Trump's tweets contributed to such a toxic climate that the whistleblower's lawyers are now concerned for his safety. The point of whistleblowing laws is to encourage people to expose misconduct and potentially illegal activity without fear of retaliation.
But how does this make anything better? You're effectively telling us that an offending tweet violated your rules, but you're also taking potentially superficial action on it. In some ways, it's the worst of all choices: a rule-violating tweet stays up and the world leader's supporters believe you're censoring that person anyway.
5. How does this help with civil discourse? Let's push this idea further. If the tweet stays up, and the world leader's supporters believe Twitter is an unfair censor, now the debate becomes about Twitter in addition to the contents of the tweet. If anything, you've just muddied the waters.
6. So can I be a "newsworthy" person? I guess it doesn't matter anymore since you've adjusted your language to say you'll only let "world leaders" break your rules. I suppose I'll have to become leader of a country if I want to try my hand at being an unrepentant Twitter troll. Does being crowned head of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros count?
7. What's the new game? I'm sure you've spent a long time gaming out how the Twittersphere will respond to this. So what happens next? Do people create hashtags around violating tweets and still discuss them? Do the untold thousands of bots run by countries that want to interfere in US elections find new ways to exacerbate the most toxic parts of the conversation, as they have before?
How many steps ahead are you thinking? And if you aren't, what's your goal here anyway?
I'm happy to take your answers in tweet form.
Do you have some questions for @jack, too? Let's hear them.
Originally published Oct. 16, 5 a.m. PT. Update, 1:09 p.m. PT: Adds information on statements by Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.