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Artillery Row

The myth of evil Twitter 2.0

Its critics are missing the point of the Twitter files

Holidaying on a beach in French Polynesia, Jack Dorsey found himself having to make the biggest decision of his career. It was the morning of January 7th ,and in the wake of riots at the capitol he was being asked what to do with a certain Twitter account. 

Yoel Roth, his “Head of Site Integrity,” who had previously likened the Trump administration to Nazis, was pushing for suspension of the president. 

What happened next was a result characteristic of much of Twitter’s arcane set of rules that governed how it decided who could say what on the platform. A few emails interpreting these rules were sent back and forth over the course of the morning. Trump was banned. 14 years on from sketching an idea for a “micro blogging,” website in his notepad, Dorsey had ended up censoring the most powerful man on the planet. 

‘‘Centralised content moderation IMO” wrote 2nd in command Parag Agarwal, later that evening, “has reached a breaking point.” Read enough of the Twitter files, the cache of leaked internal information that gives a picture of how the old regime was run, and you can see this admission of guilt coming. Between 2016-2020 it became clear that the world’s most influential social media company was increasingly unable to cope with the power it now wielded.

Inevitably, the FBI, CIA and other NGOs got involved. This relationship wasn’t always straightforward law enforcement. Revelations point to the increasingly arbitrary way in which government agencies decided which accounts they wanted down, something even Twitter executives felt uncomfortable with. More influential was a vast web of taxpayer funded NGOs, who sought to determine (often wrongly) what was regarded as dis/misinformation on the platform. At one point during the pandemic “true stories that might promote vaccine hesitancy” even became a criteria for taking action.

In light of this, the bad digestion of the Twitter Files by the media is a story in itself. The BBC, Sky and other “mainstream media” outlets have barely touched them, while being keen to run anything that paints Twitter 2.0 as an evil farce. Subsequently, and undoubtedly spurred on by Musk’s memes, they’ve fallen into the well dug trenches of the culture wars — pushing the misconception that they are a cherry picked hit job run by vengeful conservatives. The actual files are a fascinating source of correspondence that betray an ongoing subtext of concern, amongst staff themselves, around the perception that Twitter HQ was engaging in a form of censorship.

Pity for Twitter HQ aside, decisions were made that were wrong, and these decisions were influential. Smarter, less petty journalists have observed that the files betray the ongoing dilemma of how we regulate one of the world’s most influential social media platforms. What exactly is “misinformation,” and is censoring it really the right way to restore trust in institutions and media? How do we preserve free speech in the online space? How do we tackle the harms of the internet, incitement to violence, pornography and foreign interference without building an apparatus that can be abused by power, particularly in times of uncertainty and crisis?

In light of this, the myth of evil Twitter 2.0 is not only inaccurate, it’s also wilfully dishonest. Either its critics don’t care about these issues, or they accept that the decisions — arbitrary, lacking in transparency and ultimately divisive — were acceptable because they got rid of the people they don’t like. Even the old Twitter regime acknowledged how this misuse of power might be received, reflecting on the decision to censor the Hunter S Biden’s laptop at a time of electoral sensitivity, Yoel Roth admitted it was a mistake.

One of the myth’s more damaging analyses concerns “trolling,” and “hate”. Instead of engaging with the complex critiques thrown up by the files, Twitter 2.0 becomes nothing other than an open gate for the internet’s worst excesses. All too often the “source” for these stories becomes moany ex-staff who were laid off from a financially troubled company. One of the more absurd incarnations of this approach came in a recent BBC Panorama, in which the reporter managed to condense the entire takeover into a story about “online hate,” in which her experience was the primary source. 

Our inability to have a proper debate around the issues raised in the Twitter Files isn’t just a failure of our discourse, it’s a reminder that we are yet to solve the complex issues they raise. A web of unaccountable “misinformation” experts continue to wield influence that sees perfectly legitimate information taken down. Social media algorithms continue to promote a business model built on divisive engagement. Really, the story of the Twitter Files is how the apparatus of online social media regulation failed to deliver a rational, transparent response to two of the most divisive issues of our time: The Trump election and the Covid-19 pandemic.

How sincere is Musk in challenging them? There have been overtures in learning from the old regime’s mistakes. Musk has said he wants to make Twitter’s algorithm’s open source after raising concern about “de facto bias”. A “crowd sourced” fact checking system is also underway through the “community notes” — a feature arguably more similar to Wikipedia, and, though flawed, surely a better way of dealing with “misinformation” than putting it into the hands of activist journalists and unaccountable NGOs. Tellingly, it has already targeted some of the increasingly weak journalism churned out by the BBC. Despite it’s many flaws, Twitter is also still a place where legacy journalists can be called out for poor write ups of controversial stories.

Still, the myth of evil Twitter 2.0 has persisted

Still, the myth of evil Twitter 2.0 has persisted its way up to elite institutions, particularly around the increasingly confused idea that more “fact checkers” are needed to regulate the internet. The EU seems prepared to turn compliance with its Digital Services Act into a new battleground, reportedly telling Musk to hire more “human moderators and fact checkers”. Evidently, the regulators in Brussels are also yet to read the Twitter Files, nor are they yet to engage with the ongoing, and pervasive evidence that such fact checkers and “disinformation” experts have a minimal impact on restoring public trust in reliable sources of online information. 

Beyond the takeover of Twitter, there is now a bigger debate raised since the pandemic which many of the platform’s ardent critics are refusing to engage in. Can social media companies, governments and the “disinformation” networks that glued them together, accept that mistakes were made and move to a more transparent system governing the way information is dealt with online? If the myth of evil Twitter 2.0 continues to distract from this important issue, then these critics might find themselves recreating the mistakes of a deeply flawed and unsustainable system.

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