Twitter Still Doesn’t Understand Its Responsibilities

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The company’s design decisions make it more likely that heads of state will wreak havoc with their words.

CONOR FRIEDERSDORF

Twitter is designed to elicit frequent, unprompted, spontaneous, and unfiltered thoughts from its users, who come into conflict with one another as in no other medium, sometimes tweeting things they quickly regret.

Those qualities make Twitter a lively, diverting forum for daily conversation—and render it particularly ill-suited to world leaders, as I recently argued. The unparalleled power that the words of world leaders carry make it singularly fraught for them to broadcast unprompted, spontaneous, unfiltered thoughts. And the stakes for minimizing needless conflict among them could not be higher.

Thus, I urged, Twitter ought to just ban world leaders. There are so few of them. And the risk that one will abuse the platform in a way that irrevocably harms millions isn’t worth the tiny benefit humanity gains from following their tweets, given the myriad ways all world leaders can convey information to the public.

Twitter now explicitly disagrees.

On Friday, the company published a new statement on elected world leaders. “Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global, public conversation,” it began. “Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society. Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”

The statement’s biggest flaw is evading the core insight that has prompted calls to ban world leaders from Twitter: the platform doesn’t merely help facilitate the public conversation about what world leaders say; it changes the substance of what they say by virtue of its unique, deliberately designed user interface and  features.

Under the status quo, those features nudge world-leader tweeters in the same direction as all other Twitter users: toward seamless engagement on the platform, rather than deep, thoughtful deliberation before a thought is expressed.  

President Trump illustrates how the constraints of the platform change what a leader expresses.

Most execrably, he retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos from a far-right politician in Europe. If Trump was not on Twitter, it is unlikely that he would’ve found the video, uploaded it to White House servers, and posted it to the web, spreading its reach and associating it with the United States government. More typical is his pattern of publicly reacting in real time to whatever it is that the cable-news show Fox & Friends broadcasts on a given morning, a concerning feedback loop persuasively documented in Politico by Matthew Gertz.

Those forays into live-tweeting TV do not translate to other mediums. Trump would express fewer destructive thoughts if he always communicated through other platforms and mediums due partly to their intrinsic features; he won’t be the last world leader for whom that holds true. Does Twitter contest that many of his irresponsible statements were made on their platform, or that they probably wouldn’t have been expressed on a different one?

As for the rest of the company’s statement, that a Twitter ban would not silence world leaders is a point in favor of such a ban. It is necessary for world leaders including Trump to communicate with citizens, but a ban would not hamper necessary discussion around the words and actions of world leaders. If heads of state weren’t on Twitter, their words and actions would still be posted to the platform and debated endlessly by its users. If a president posted a video or podcast, countless people would embed it on Twitter; if a German chancellor released a written statement, it would surely be posted on the site.

What first communicating via those other means would demand is an extra degree of premeditation and deliberation. They are less vulnerable to impulsiveness, thoughtlessness, and needless conflict than is Twitter. They’re arguably less vulnerable to hacking, too.

And even if Twitter is determined to keep world leaders on its platform, even if its arguments for doing so are correct, that isn’t the end of its potential responsibility.

In the 1995 essay “The Technologist’s Responsibilities and Social Change,” Mark Weisler set forth two principles for inventing socially dangerous technology:

  1. Build it as safe as you can, and build into it all the safeguards to personal values that you can imagine.
  2. Tell the world at large that you are doing something dangerous.

It seems to me that Twitter has utterly failed to publicly acknowledge or grapple with the dangers its platform poses, even as the president of the United States uses it to antagonize a nuclear power, spread propaganda about minority groups, and employ the presidential bully pulpit in new, poorly understood ways.

And even short of banning world leaders from the platform, one can imagine lots of ways that Twitter could build-in safeguards that anticipate and avert harms.

For instance, world leaders might be given special accounts that impose a six-hour wait on tweets to encourage deliberation, or that disable the ability to retweet, forcing world leaders to take full personal responsibility for any message they send. Instead, Twitter has taken a politically convenient but substantively absurdist course: By virtue of the way that the site’s users are policed, with suspensions and bans regularly imposed, average people enjoy less leeway than world leaders whose every utterance reaches and affects millions.

If Twitter insists on hosting world leaders, it should at least tweak their version of the platform so that features crafted to stoke frictionless engagement among the masses are swapped out, nudging elites away from thoughtless public conflict and toward sober reflection and deliberation before their thoughts reach millions.

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