Twitter Can’t Save Us
We can’t rely on a man-made platform to protect us from the human condition.
Earth image provided by Canva. Logo property of Twitter. Graphic created by the author.
“Everybody has good and bad forces working with them, against them, and within them.”
― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
It’s a colossal understatement to say that social media platforms have altered our lives. In developed countries especially, the very fabric of how we go about our days, conduct business, and relate to one another has been forever changed by the widespread use of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
In many ways, this can be seen as a positive thing. A platform that thrives on people sharing their diverse thoughts, opinions, and experiences can be a beautiful, harmonious place. At least, that’s what Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey and his small team thought when they were first building the now $32.48 billion company (as of August 28, 2020).
What began as a simple idea — give people a way to communicate where the audience chooses whether or not to engage rather than the sender hand picking who to communicate with — has come with on onslaught of unforeseen issues that seem to have been far from the minds of Dorsey and his team years ago.
In fact, I would argue that people would call them crazy if they had assumed back then that Twitter would become as powerful as it is today. With that power has come complications.
Power of the platforms
Many of Silicon Valley’s iconic social media companies have been in the public eye for the past few years, with a focus on the power they hold. Recent inquiries have aimed at how social media platforms can affect American elections, politics, and how they may be contributing to radicalizing people. All of these issues are deeply connected to fact-checking, or a lack thereof.
Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have been in the news frequently for their responses to President Trump’s use of the platforms. During an interview with New York Times reporter and host of The Daily podcast Michael Barbaro, Jack Dorsey explained that Twitter began annotating the president's tweets when they contained statements found to be untrue. The annotations pointed out to Twitter users that the content of the tweets may not be reliable and should be further researched.
Facebook has been much slower to take action in the spread of potential misinformation on their platform, citing the users’ right to freedom of expression.
In a leak to NBC News, it was found that under direction from company leadership, Facebook employees had even deleted some of the “strikes” conservative pages had been issued for spreading misinformation, eliminating proof of their breach of policy to keep their pages functional.
Both the NBC News article and The Daily interview suggest that the reluctance to enforce guidelines stems from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s fear of falling out of favor with conservative leaders.
Should social media shoulder all of the blame?
It’s easy to write large corporations like Facebook and Twitter off as innately evil, but it’s more difficult to look closer at their intentions, processes, and their actions to rightly determine whether or not they are acting with the general public’s best interest in mind.
To be clear, I, too, think these companies are far from perfect and the NBC leak adds more fuel to the fire.
Still, it’s worth examining what problems society is really asking social media platforms to fix and whether or not we can expect them to create the change we’re asking them for.
In The Daily interview, Dorsey said about Twitter, “This is less about building a product and more about how people interrelate to one another.”
Dorsey explained that he and his fellow founders’ vision was to create a tool whose users were representative of the world, where diverse and varying people and ideas could connect. For better or worse, that is a large part of what Twitter has done.
The cyberbullying, trolling, cancel culture, and spread of misinformation that happens on Twitter, as well as all over the internet, isn’t a result of social media existing.
It is the result of human actions, of the same need we all feel to pass judgment, express our likes and dislikes of things, and share stories we have heard in our in-person, offline lives, just amplified and with potential for greater reach.
Of course, hiding behind a screen to share comments you wouldn’t say to someone’s face is a nasty side effect of the internet, especially social media. Also, the ease with which users can, often unknowingly, spread false information with a few taps and without ever reading the source material they may be citing is problematic.
Many feel emboldened to act online as if their actions have no consequences. This is, of course, troublesome; but I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of social media platforms.
An age-old dilemma
Wherever there are rules regulating communication, people have found loopholes and ways to make the system work in their favor. Misinformation has been pervasive since humans first began communicating. These problems wouldn’t simply disappear if social media disappeared, and I think many people seem to forget that.
Our issues, as sometimes-malicious, often misinformed, and occasionally self-centered humans, have been present long before social media and, unfortunately, will prevail long after.
This is an ugly truth many choose to ignore, which I also understand, because it’s far easier to point the finger at massive, powerful corporations for not keeping us safer than to realize that we’re the only ones who can truly protect others from ourselves.
Still, the creators of these hugely powerful companies need to be more attuned to the issues and potential issues they face. As Dorsey states during The Daily interview, Twitter started with great intentions but without proper foresight.
Is it entirely fair to hold one person responsible for unforeseen reactions to the app’s incentives (e.g., likes and followers) or the ways people would later use the site maliciously?
To ask that would be asking Dorsey and his team to predict the future.
Dorsey also admitted that if he could go back and do it all over again, he would have brought in experts such as game theorists and behavioral psychologists to help predict users’ reactions to those incentives (now proven to be potentially harmful) before launching Twitter.
That said: Is it fair to try to prevent social media platforms from (further) hurting people? Of course.
While those in charge of creating and regulating these tools should be extremely cautious, given the caliber of their platforms’ power, individuals also need to be held accountable for their own actions. The trouble is, how is that going to be enforced?
If Twitter were to find a way to completely eliminate the negative ways the platform can be used, it would have to limit users beyond belief and continuously update the site to prevent the new ways people would find to use it negatively, whether intentionally or not. Isn’t that censorship?
Doesn’t that destroy the original vision Dorsey had for open communication?
Social media technology has painted modern society into a corner. The advancements in communication and information-sharing have allowed us to interact more than ever, but they’ve come with the hard truth that the rules we’ve created for ourselves are always debatable and pliable.
Whether online or not, humans are responsible for human actions.
If we can’t properly regulate them, and arguably don’t want to entirely, how can we expect something we’ve created to?
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Corporate journalist, cat mom, figuring it out. Topics: mental health, philosophy, food, travel. Published in The Startup, Invisible Illness, 4th Wave Feminism.