Will the real Twitter please stand up?

Twitter is not one, but three. It is a protocol, an app, and a media company. And being all the three is doing it no good

N S Ramnath

[Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Photo by JD Lasica under Creative Commons]

An Indian parliamentary committee wants Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey or his top executives to appear before it to answer questions on “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social media platforms”.  

Twitter, which constantly worries about not being fast enough, has declined to attend the hearing, citing short notice. The committee then gave it another 15 days. It is not clear if Dorsey will make it on February 25. But the episode has definitely intensified the debates on Twitter.

Some see this not only as a reflection of the technology company’s arrogance, but also as yet another indication that it has been discriminating against the right wing accounts—by shadow banning, suspending, suppressing hashtags—even as it promoted liberal, left wing tweets and accounts. The summon might have been triggered by the complaints against its liberal bias. Twitter has maintained it is neutral.

Some others argue that the Indian parliament shouldn’t have gotten into this in the first place. Twitter after all is a business and it has the right to set its own policies. If some group doesn’t like it, they can vote with their feet. If you don’t like a product, simply stop using it. The issue is not serious enough for a parliamentary committee to intervene.  

The former position is debatable. After all, quite a few right wing leaders have gained power building their popularity on Twitter. Donald Trump is a prime example.

The latter position, irrespective of which side of the ideological aisle one is in, is wrong for two reasons.

One, Twitter is a platform. Platforms are about the network effect. The assumptions we make about traditional products may not hold here. For example, if you don’t want to buy a Nike, you can buy an Adidas. But, you can’t switch from WhatsApp to Signal, if most of your friends, family and colleagues are on WhatsApp. You wouldn’t want to move from Twitter to Mastodon, if the community you want to engage with is on Twitter.

Two, Twitter impacts you even if you are not on it. Social media platforms are tightly knit into society. WhatsApp and Twitter are now a part of everyday language. Twitter might have less than 50 million users in India, but it has disproportionate impact. Its content finds its way into social media—as screenshots on WhatsApp—and influences how mainstream media covers news.

We can’t escape Twitter’s reach. If Twitter is going to impact elections, we are impacted, even if we don’t use it. If miscreants use Twitter to coordinate an attack on someone, she will be hit irrespective of whether she uses it or not. Just like how farmers burning crop residue in Punjab can send children in Delhi to hospitals, a fire in Twitter can force you to take road A, instead of road B. It might not always be in your interest. Twitter can cause harm.

In his influential 1995 piece called The Technologist's Responsibilities and Social Change, computing pioneer Mark Weiser outlined his two principles of ‘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.

Let’s come to Weiser’s first principle a little latter. But it is pretty clear now that those who built social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter did not tell the world at large that their creations had the potential to do harm. It could be because they believed their intentions were good and they did not anticipate bad consequences. Whatever might be the case, various governments—in the US, Europe, Singapore and now India—have good reason to pull them up. It is in public interest. Everyone has a stake in it.

The bigger question is what exactly does the committee hope to achieve—in terms of concrete action—by summoning Twitter's leadership? Let’s keep the ideological battles aside, and look at it as if the problem with Twitter will have a negative impact on everyone, later if not now. One can interpret the term “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social media platforms” in two ways.

The first is fundamental, and has to do with fake news, hate speech and content that incites violence. The company has been talking about it for quite some time. In 2012, Financial Times wrote about how Twitter’s then CEO Dick Costolo, “became visibly emotional as he described his frustration in tackling the problem of ‘horrifying’ abuse while maintaining the company’s mantra that ‘tweets must flow’.” It has been regularly upgrading its anti-harassment tools. Last year, it suspended thousands of accounts over extremism and deleted millions of suspicious accounts.

However, all these were not enough. Two researchers from the University of Iowa studied 1.5 billion tweets over 16 months, and concluded that Twitter was not fast enough in dealing with abusive content. Often, Twitter waited for accounts to send over 100 tweets before identifying them as abusive. The researchers could identify over 167,000 apps spreading spam and links to malware that had skipped Twitter's filters. According to a poll, 37% of Americans experienced harassment, double from previous year.

Twitter can’t be accused of not being self-aware. In a recent Twitter interview with Recode co-founder Kara Swisher, Dorsey reiterated that Twitter hasn't done enough, and it is working to improve.

Twitter's challenge here is to keep the doors open for everyone and still ensure that no one breaks its rules. Twitter is not fast enough, but no one would accuse it of going in the wrong direction.

But the second interpretation, often ignored or dismissed by people (who think of it merely as a business, and not a platform), is more crucial: Is Twitter a neutral platform?

It is not only crucial, it is also tougher. Any technology, especially a platform such as Twitter, comes to life within a society, and in the process assume characteristics of the society it is in, often enhancing them. It is a reason why the very first laws of technology (as proposed by Melvin Kranzberg, a pioneering historian of technology) states that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”.

Consider these:

  • People—not bots—tend to spread false news rather than true news. A study by MIT researchers, who looked at 4.5 million tweets about 126,000 different stories, found that false stories spread faster and wider than true stories. People tend to spread stories that resonate with them, and don’t care so much about the truth.
  • The idea of neutrality is too subjective. Goal posts shift. Researchers at the University of Utah and Konkuk University found that people tend to judge the neutrality of a story, not based on its content, but based on who shared it on social media. If it is shared by their own ideological group, they considered it neutral.
  • Besides, people who write code, irrespective of their best intent, end up transferring some of their biases to the product. It is a reason why face recognition algorithms cannot recognise black faces. Twitter, in Dorsey’s own words, has a liberal bias. Last year he told Recode, “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. 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.” Such open admission of bias is often an indication that the company is probably careful that it doesn’t seep into their codes. “Our platform is perfectly neutral,” should worry us more than “We are probably biased and want to be careful about what we code”.
  • When people interact with technology, things don’t always go as one expects. Twitter believes in keeping its platform open to all voices. We assume that as people get exposed to more perspectives, there is a better chance of finding a common ground. But in the real world, the exact opposite could happen. When sociologists tested the impact of getting exposure to those with opposing political views with over 1200 regular Twitter users, they found it actually backfires and increases political polarisation.

These are just some of the issues that come up when Twitter aims for tougher goals like achieving neutrality.

The challenge for Twitter is that it's a listed company. It has to show revenues, profits, growth in user numbers, growth in engagements, and show value to advertisers. But pursuing this path would also mean stepping on several moral, social and political minefields.

Twitter might just not have the bandwidth to do all these.

What then is the solution? We should first get a sense of what’s fundamentally wrong with Twitter as it exists today. Twitter is not one, but three. It’s a protocol to send messages. It’s an app, providing a certain kind of experience to users. It’s also a media company, with goals such as promoting “good conversations”.  At one level, it has democratised content generation, taken the power away from the elite. At another level, it holds too much power in its own hands. Twitter simply cannot adhere to Weiser’s first principle, if it wants to be all these. It gets too complicated.

Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList and an influential voice in Silicon Valley, in a conversation with Dilbert creator Scott Adams says it should go restrict itself to just being a protocol. “If you have to look for the greatest concentration of power it’s the people with their thumbs on the scale,” Ravikant said. “It’s the people who are writing the algorithms to control the distribution on social media and I think this is a very dangerous place for Facebook and Twitter to be in. I’ve been very explicit about this but I think Twitter could be a very powerful and permanent entity but only if it becomes a protocol and not an app.”

Ravikant’s views on Twitter start at around 35 minutes into the video.

Ravikant’s suggestion is not actually as radical as it sounds. In fact, during #KaraJack interview Swisher asked Dorsey if he would open the platform to more third parties.

This was his reply.

Whether the parliamentary committee will be able to push Twitter in that direction, that’s unlikely. There will be a huge resistance because Twitter’s business model rests on it being all the three—a protocol, an app and a media organisation. Yet, we shouldn’t rule out a move in that direction. Systems evolve by pulls and pushes. 

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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