I try to avoid discussing politics in any shape, form or fashion here, but this story is too interesting to pass up,
For well over a year now, Twitter has been tip-toeing toward adding functionality that allows the platform to censor the content of tweets. Much of their ‘managing the conversation’ initiative was building toward this, and the suspicion was that one of the end goals was to limit President Trump’s ability to tweet. Love him or hate him, President Trump’s ability to use Twitter to get his message out is masterful, and it’s really interesting that most of the sites and blogs that cover case studies for great social media usage have completely ignored it. The President is able, via his tweets, to all but manipulate mainstream media into (accidentally) covering stories and issues that it would otherwise ignore.
And to be fair, a lot of what President Trump claims on Twitter is an exaggeration at best, and falsehoods at worst.
So yesterday, Twitter began ‘fact-checking’ President Trump’s tweets:
There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
Note the ‘Get the Facts About Mail-In Ballots’ that Twitter has added to the bottom of the tweet. This is a very interesting development for three reasons:
1 – If Twitter is going to ‘fact-check’ President Trump, it will have to fact-check all politicians. Otherwise, it will lead to charges (rightly or wrongly) of election interference. And let’s be honest, an even application of its rules to all users has never been Twitter’s strong suit. This will simply lead to more yelling and screaming every time ANY major politician has a tweet ‘fact-checked’, but Twitter has backed itself into a corner where it almost has to start ‘fact-checking’ all politicians, in order to not give the impression that it is only targeting the President.
And already, there are questions about the objectivity of the person who is ‘fact-checking’ the President’s tweets:
The problem is, Yoel Roth once called Trump "actual Nazis" & a "racist tangerine." pic.twitter.com/dlbHI0qNCm
— Liz Wheeler (@Liz_Wheeler) May 27, 2020
2 – This opens the free-speech debate, as well as the discussion about if Twitter is a platform, or a publisher:
The law still protects social media companies like @Twitter because they are considered forums not publishers.
But if they have now decided to exercise an editorial role like a publisher then they should no longer be shielded from liability & treated as publishers under the law.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) May 27, 2020
3 – President Trump is arguably the most influential Twitter user. The reality is, a lot of people are on Twitter mainly to read and follow the President’s tweets. And believe it or not, many of these people are his detractors, not his supporters. If this reaches a point where the President is either banned from Twitter or decides to move to another platform, it’s going to be a massive hit for Twitter, and a boon for whatever platform the President moves to. Which honestly might not be a bad thing for those of us that hate the political sniping that constantly plagues Twitter.
And just this morning, the President said he is revisiting the idea of regulating social media platforms like Twitter:
Trump Threatens To 'close social media platforms down' For Silencing Conservatives
“We will strongly regulate, or close them down before we can ever allow this to happen," Pres. Trump wrote.https://t.co/WdXohDC0wc
— Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) May 27, 2020
As you can see, all of this has created a huge mess for Twitter. Unfortunately, social media and mainstream media have become completely interwoven over the last few years. I remember around 2010 or so thinking how cool it was to see a CNN anchor reference what was being said on Twitter during a segment. “Look, they are showing actual tweets! How cool!” But over the years, the mainstream media has started to use social media posts as a proxy for public opinion, and that’s an incredibly inaccurate and potentially dangerous leap to make. It’s led to people rushing to Twitter and other social media channels to try to make a name for themselves by basically screaming the loudest about politics. It’s greatly polluted the entire Twitter community and it has made everyday interactions far more toxic. In the last few weeks I’ve started unfollowing people on Twitter, some that I had followed for over a decade, based on their political rants. But media is rewarding the voices that scream the loudest with coverage, and then says those voices represent what you and I think as well.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from this episode is: Social media sites need to create simple, clear-cut rules for its users, and apply those rules evenly to all. As I said earlier, Twitter has been building up to this for well over a year. They began to talk about ‘managing the conversation’, or ‘taking into account the user’s intent’, or ‘how some people might be offended by certain topics’, and all of this sounds like code for ‘how can we make it so we can get rid of the people who say things we don’t like, but make it seem like we are still following our own rules?’
That’s not how you create trust among your users, that’s not how you build something that lasts. Twitter has had little to no direct competition for almost a decade. The days of also-rans like Identi.ca or Plurk are long gone. Perhaps it’s time for a new ‘micro-blogging’ site to enter the space.