Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Donald Trump and Twitter. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, like bacon and eggs, like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Sadly, like Liz and Dick’s tempestuous romance, Trump’s relationship with Twitter is a love-hate one. Twitter despises Trump’s 3 a.m. texts, but all that publicity is as irresistible as a 69.42-carat diamond necklace. Twitter repeatedly burns Trump, but the president just keeps coming back. Divorce may finally be on the horizon after Trump signed his Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship because two of his tweets were “fact-checked” as fake news.
Utility or Publisher?
Social media platforms “cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators,” wrote Trump, invoking the Communications Decency Act section 230. Liberty Nation’s Leesa K. Donner succinctly described this regulation, writing:
“It separates ‘interactive computer services’ from being held to the same standards as publishers. In essence, it protects these now-gargantuan social media platforms from being held responsible for what their users say.”
It is all a matter of liability. Tech companies have positioned themselves as public services in the manner of utility companies, but they have come under fire due to increasing efforts to moderate content. Rather than existing in a privileged niche where they are granted control over messages and yet have no responsibility for them, it has been suggested that these companies should be made to finally choose whether they are utilities or publishers. LN‘s Onar Åm aptly explained the difference:
“If you are a publisher, you are liable for any of the content you publish. An electrical utility, however, cannot be held accountable for unknowingly providing electricity to a drug producer. Similarly, if a company declares itself to be an information infrastructure, it gains protection from liability in exchange for not being able to discriminate any customer on any action except that which is illegal in the United States.”
At the crux of the issue is whether social media companies, as private entities, have the right and responsibility to keep their content wholesome, or whether they are mere conduits for user expression. Many argue that, as a privately-owned business, Twitter should have the right to control what appears on its platform. To provide a fair transaction, however, users must be informed about what to reasonably expect from the service. That cannot happen when the provider is not upfront about the service it truly offers.
What is Twitter Selling?
During this Coronavirus pandemic, Twitter has openly introduced new rules around fact-checking and unverified information. Yet how Twitter comes up with these rules and executes them remains mysterious. That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to secrecy.
In a video recorded by Project Veritas in 2018, former Twitter engineer Abhinav Vadrevu admitted the company engages in “shadow banning,” the practice of limiting users’ reach without their knowledge. He said:
“One strategy is to shadow ban so you have ultimate control. The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone but they don’t know they’ve been banned, because they keep posting and no one sees their content. So they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it.”
Olinda Hassan, a Policy Manager for Twitter’s Trust and Safety team in 2017 told undercover reporters that the platform was working to “down rank” undesirables. She said, “It’s something we’re working on. We’re trying to get the sh—y people to not show up. It’s a product thing we’re working on right now.” Exactly how “sh—y people” were defined is unknown. However, one can glean a few possibilities.
Twitter Content Review Agent Mo Norai was recorded in 2017, acknowledging the company had an unofficial political stance. There were, he said, “A lot of unwritten rules, and being that we’re in San Francisco, we’re in California, very liberal, a very blue state. You had to be … I mean as a company you can’t really say it because it would make you look bad, but behind closed doors are lots of rules. There was, I would say … Twitter was probably about 90% Anti-Trump, maybe 99% Anti-Trump.”
At around the same time, in 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted in an interview with New York University professor Jay Rosen that “We have a lot of conservative-leaning folks in the company as well, and to be honest, they don’t feel safe to express their opinions at the company.” Dorsey continued, “They do feel silenced by just the general swirl of what they perceive to be the broader percentage of leanings within the company, and I don’t think that’s fair or right,” although little appears to have changed in the years since.
With the Trump-Twitter spat, the site’s current Head of Site Integrity Yoel Roth has come under public examination, having a history of referring to Trump and his staff as Nazis, and denigrating those living in flyover country.
Trump Vs. Twitter
In round one, Twitter added a fact-checking note to Trump’s warnings about mail-in voting and fraud; the president responded with his executive order. In round two, Twitter covered up a Trump tweet for “glorifying violence” amid riots triggered by the death of George Floyd. Very kindly, Twitter “determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible” to viewers with the stomach to click past a warning.
The media has mostly taken the position that Trump’s executive order is an attack on Big Tech’s ability to fact-check people’s statements. Social media companies have been working on this function for some time, as it represents a powerful tool in their apparent mission to control communication globally. But with their determination to evaluate the messages they host, can these companies honestly claim to be just utilities, rather than publishers taking an active role in shaping content? Trump’s apparent intention is to threaten Twitter into dialing back its interference, but could this backfire and force social media companies to accept publisher status and therefore gain more control than ever? Has Jack Dorsey made a big mistake in provoking the president of the United States? Ultimately, that may depend on the way America votes this November.
Social media companies today hold enormous power over the communication of millions of people – and yet this makes them targets for political pressure. Even disregarding any biases that might be inherent within the company itself, Twitter is coming under enormous pressure – not least from the media – to increase its censorship, and it appears – leading up to the 2020 election – to thwart Donald Trump’s trademark method of communicating with voters.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.