Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive is trying to increase transparency and dispel rumors of bias.
Instead, he’s facing criticism for indecision and not acting to stop fake news and what he admitted was a “toxic” environment on Twitter.
On Friday, Jack Dorsey met with CNN’s Brian Stelter, the most recent in a string of appearances with members of the news media. In the interview, Dorsey stressed the importance of transparency and said that he fell short in “articulating [his] personal objectives” with Twitter’s future.
Dorsey also said that Twitter is actively trying to remove bias from its decisions:
… Are we doing something according to political ideology or viewpoints? And we are not. Period. We do not look at content with regards to political viewpoint or ideology. We look at behavior.
… We need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which, I fully admit, is left, is more left-leaning. And I think it’s important to articulate our bias and to share it with people so that people understand us, but we need to remove all bias from how we act, and our policies and our enforcement.
Dorsey’s statements centered on Twitter’s suspension of controversial “Infowars” host Alex Jones’personal account. Jones is restricted to only reading tweets; he cannot tweet from his account until the week-long suspension is lifted. Dorsey received harsh criticism for not banning Jones, as have platforms including Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest and Apple.
“As we receive reports we take action and there are varying degrees of enforcement action, starting with warnings to temporary suspensions, which the accounts are now in,” Dorsey said of Jones’ account. “We have evidence that shows like temporary suspensions, temporary lockouts will change behavior. It will change people’s approach.”
“I’m not naïve enough to believe that it’s going to change it for everyone, but it’s worth a shot,” he explained.
Though Dorsey’s remarks were meant to appeal to people on both sides of the political spectrum, backlash quickly ensued.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that right-wing groups would ignore the former remark, and seize on the latter. Within hours of the publication of Dorsey’s interview, conservative figureheads had framed his comments as tantamount to an admission that Twitter’s policies were biased.
… Dorsey has spent much of the summer attempting to head off this type of criticism. In June, the Twitter C.E.O. dined at the upscale Georgetown restaurant Cafe Milano with a group that included White House communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp and Fox News commentator Guy Benson, in what quickly devolved into an airing of grievances. His most recent media tour began on Sean Hannity’s radio show, where he sought to reassure listeners that Twitter would not “shadow ban” them. Conservatives praised his transparency, and Hannity himself has since claimed to have a direct line of communication with Dorsey. But Dorsey should have known his time in the right-wing sun would be short-lived; the likes of Hannity and Jones have proven over and over again that they will never let up on the social-media giant, even when Twitter appears to skew explicitly in their favor. In admitting to “left-leaning” bias, and promising to stamp it out when enforcing rules, Dorsey effectively handed conservatives more ammunition, perpetuating the cycle that forces him to continually tiptoe around the right.
Others criticized Dorsey for not taking enough action to head off fake news and cut off toxic behavior.
[In the interview,] Dorsey argued that his company hadn’t “figured this [fake news] out” and was reluctant to outright remove false reports. It would be “dangerous” for Twitter staffers to serve as “arbiters of truth,” he claimed.
The exec also further explained why Twitter didn’t proactively suspend the accounts of Alex Jones and InfoWars despite the public outcry. According to Dorsey, the company doesn’t have the resources to actively hunt for offending content (it would have to spend “hours and hours and hours” looking through videos, he said) and wants to be “consistent” with its enforcement policy. Company views change, the CEO claimed, and it would be he hard to earn users’ trust if Twitter banned users based on its moment-by-moment feelings.
… Dorsey may have tried to cast Twitter as neutral in the interview, but it might reinforce beliefs that the social media giant is evasive and non-committal.
Among the questions Dorsey asked in the CNN interview: “How do we earn peoples’ trust?” and “How do we guide people back to healthy conversation?”
While he may get credit for asking big, philosophical questions about how his site operates, Dorsey remains vulnerable to criticism about Twitter’s inaction.
He responded to that by saying “we are taking a lot more action than we ever have in the past.” But much of the action is invisible to users, he asserted.
Some pointed out that Dorsey’s explanation to suspending Jones’ account underlined the executive’s refusal to take a stand and establish clear policies.
… Over the past week, Twitter found that Jones violated its rules eight times, then gave him a one-week suspension in which he could still read tweets and send direct messages.
Here is how Dorsey described that process to The Hill‘s Harper Neidig:
“We’re always trying to cultivate more of a learning mindset and help guide people back towards healthier behaviors and healthier public conversation.”
“We also think it’s important to clarify what our principles are, which we haven’t done a great job of in the past, and we need to take a step back and make sure that we are clearly articulating what those mean and what our objectives are.”
Again, presented with an obvious decision, Twitter declines to make it. Then, even more surprisingly, it suggests the problem is that it hasn’t clearly articulated its own policies — when, in fact, it articulated perfectly clear policies online, to the point that CNN’s Oliver Darcy was able to use them to identify the very instances of rule-breaking that eventually got Jones into trouble.
It was good to see Dorsey shed some light on how he’s thinking about tackling these obviously difficult questions concerning abuse and misinformation on Twitter – but the company’s lax approach is starting to feel outdated.
Twitter’s position is that it acts on reports of abuse of its platform, instead of proactively seeking out such incidents. Dorsey added that it’s not just about dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis, but also figuring out a generalized solution that can be applied more widely and consistently.
I don’t think that’s good enough: for a long time now, the company hasn’t been good at operating transparently when it comes to addressing reports of abuse, so it’s hard to imagine that will change anytime soon.
“[T]he company’s history suggests that it hasn’t failed for lack of thinking,” Newton wrote. “The problem, rather, is that thinking has so often served as a substitute for action.”
PR Daily readers, how would you advise Dorsey and Twitter to respond to critics? What would your next move be?