Don’t mention Trump! Whatever you do, don’t mention Trump!!!
Listening to the Twitter quarterly earnings call yesterday, I could only imagine how the briefing session with Jack Dorsey went before the presentation, picturing anxious investor relations wonks urging the CEO not to namecheck the platform’s most (in)famous ex-user.
Dorsey stuck to the party line, but the former US President still cast a long shadow over the firm’s results announcement, all the way from the golf courses of Florida. No-one could be in any doubt what Dorsey was referencing when he went out of his way to insist that Twitter isn’t tied to any one user, for example.
Frankly, the timing wasn’t great for any serious attempt to steer away from discussing the use to which Trump has put Twitter during his political career, from smearing opponents through routinely spreading unchallenged ‘Fake News’, right up to making repeated false claims of electoral fraud right up to - and beyond - the storming of the US Capitol by a mob of his supporters. As Twitter uncorked its latest numbers, the impeachment proceedings against ‘he-who-must-not-be-named’ were underway in Congress, with a number of his incendiary tweets on show as part of the prosecution case.
In the event, although Dorsey did his best to widen out the discussion around “de-centralized moderation” - an important topic and one we’ll return to shortly - Trump wasn’t going to go away. So it was that CFO Ned Segal ended up on TV later making the statement that the media and analyst community was chasing - Trump is banned from Twitter forever, even if he stands for election again and somehow ends up back in the Oval Office:
The way our policies work, when you’re removed from the platform, you’re removed from the platform, whether you’re a commentator, you’re a CFO, or you are a former or current public official. Remember, our policies are designed to make sure that people are not inciting violence and if anybody does that, we have to remove them from the service and our policies don’t allow people to come back.
Presumably Twitter wouldn’t actually ban the official Twitter account of the President of the United States, but in the event of ‘Trump 2.0 - He’s Back and He’s Got Scores To Settle!’, the firm appears to have committed itself to heavy moderation of that account to prevent it being abused, as well as blocking the personal account of the man himself.
That’s a bold pledge and one that’s likely to alienate many; on the other hand, it’s a statement of intent that will also win a lot of plaudits from others - delete according to which side of the wall Mexico didn’t pay for that you stand on. But wherever you are on the Mar-a-Lago divide, Segal’s policy confirmation will raise yet more tricky questions around the thin line between moderation and censorship. Twitter’s original ban on Trump in the wake of the Washington assault on the Capitol was questioned even by some of those not classed as his supporters, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But fears that Twitter will suffer from a defection by the Trump home crowd, robbed of the middle of the night words of wisdom from the Residence, are unfounded, insists Dorsey, drilling down early in his results commentary - and in more detail than usual - on usage stats, particularly for January when the Trump era came to its end:
To anticipate the question, the increase in average absolute mDAU [monetizable daily active users] through the end of January was above the historical average for the last four years, and we expect to see mDAU growth of approximately 20% year-over-year in Q1.
In other words, we’re not all about Trump, he insisted:
We are a platform that is obviously much larger than any one topic or any one account. Eighty percent of our audience is outside the United States and we have more than 50 accounts with over 25 million followers. Conversations on Twitter every day are based on what's happening in the world. And we have proven in the past few years that if we do the work to serve the public conversation, our daily audience grows.
Let’s move on (please!)
It’s clear Twitter wants to move beyond the political controversies of recent weeks, although that’s likely to be a fruitless ambition. Still, Dorsey insisted:
While we have seen an increase in news and politics, especially in the United States, we are not a service that's dependent upon that. And as we continue to add more functionality around interest and topics, we remove more and more of that very light dependency on it.
The challenge for Twitter now is adapt user behavior so that it focuses on those conversations, rather than being built around a cult of celebrity/notoriety associated with individual accounts. Dorsey explained:
What we're excited about especially in the future is helping everyone unlock more of the long tail of topics and interest. This is why I believe being able to follow topics and interests is so critical and so important. We give that functionality to people as soon as they sign up for Twitter. People just spend so much time trying to find the right accounts instead of really being able to focus on what topics they're interested in…We have over 6,000 topics that you can follow today and we're adding them as quickly as we can all around the world.
But even if that ‘look over here’ shift can be achieved, Twitter’s engagement with the political sphere has to go on, not least because of the growing demand for legislators to impose more regulation on the social media sector. One of Trump’s final demands in office was for Congress to back his calls for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which affords website publishers with immunity from liability for third party content on their services. While Trump’s over-aggressive approach to this may not have sat well with legislators, there is considerable bi-partisan sympathy around the basic need to get tougher with social media platform providers, with President Biden having previously indicated he was in favor of some form of action here.
All in this together
Dorsey also turned his attention to the idea of de-centralizing social media. Twitter is working on a de-centralized social media standard, Blue Sky, which has been in development since December 2019. When the project was announced, as Dorsey pitched it, this standard wouldn’t actually be owned by any single private company. Users would be able to choose from a variety of services to access the same network, in the same way as they currently choose an email service. In the process, service providers would pick up much of the content moderation burden. For example, a user could choose to select a provider that filtered out particular topics, content, language etc.
While critics might suggest that this is what could be seen in the likes of right wing platform Parler prior to recent pre-Amazonian intervention and that such a ‘protocol, not platform’ approach risks creating echo chambers where extremist views are only more likely to receive unchallenged affirmation, Dorsey continues to argue that the reverse is true:
It creates a much larger corpus of conversation. It gives many more inputs to public conversation. And the more conversation that we [provide] access to, the better job we can do to surface relevant content to people. That's where we will be competitive - making sure that we are delivering the best out of a much, much larger corpus of conversation.
If that’s accepted as a thesis, then it sets some important strategic priorities, he argued, including giving people more choice around what relevance algorithms they use:
You can imagine a more market-driven and marketplace approach to algorithms. That is something that not only we can host, but we can participate in. The thing that gets me really excited about all of this is we will have access to a much larger conversation, have access to much more content and we'll be able to put many more ranking algorithms that suit different people's needs on top of it. You can imagine an app store…ranking algorithms that give people optimal flexibility in terms of how they see it.
That, he concludes, will drive more people into participating in social media in the first place and in turn will promote more healthy conversation. But it can’t all be down to Twitter; users have to play their part in keeping those conversations in that good health, he states, pointing to the firm’s Bird Watch crowd-sourced fact-checker initiative, launched in pilot last month as counter to misinformation dissemination, as an example of the spreading of moderation burdens to come. The more such moderation can be decentralised and users given the tools to curate their own experiences, the better, he concludes.
I have some sympathy with some of this and some caveats. While I agree that users need to accept a more participative role in moderating content and not just sit around waiting to take offence, it’s also the case that platform providers need to step up here as well. I’m also not in favor of the deliberate creation of echo chambers, online or offline, or ritually blocking off views that don’t align with my own. I read a number of newspapers whose opinions and editorial stance I oppose, but take the view that you always need to know what the b*ggers are saying about you. Ignorance is never bliss.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month that he wanted to “turn down the temperature” of political conversations. Yesterday Dorsey seemed keen to adopt that well-aired cliche of ‘let’s move on’, the go-to response of a politician caught with his pants down. Neither works. Not talking about something or not reading about it doesn’t make it go away.
I’m certainly not about to start supporting a ‘heads in the sand’ approach here. Dinner party rules dictate no sex, religion or politics as topics of conversation if you want to avoid an argument over the crème brûlée. We can’t realistically take the same stance with social media. So color me deeply unimpressed when Facebook starts waving its ‘look at us being all responsible’ false flag when announcing that it’s scaling back all political content in its News Feed for some users as part of an exploration of a “variety of ways to rank political content in people's feeds”.
It’s a long-standing bone of contention as to whether the likes of Twitter and Facebook should be considered publishers, with all the associated liabilities that status confers. The reality at present is that material can be posted with seeming impunity on social platforms that would have us up in court were we so inclined to run similar material on diginomica. There is a need for a line in the sand here. One of the least edifying aspects of January was watching to see just how far platform providers were prepared to bend before finally being pushed into taking action. With the Biden administration now in situ, it’s time for that serious,‘grown-up’ conversation to be had about Section 230 and all its associated topics.
(BTW, for what it’s worth, Twitter posted its second-ever $1 billion quarter, up 28% year-on-year to $1.29 billion, with net income of $222 million.)