Twitter is sick. And it’s sorry for infecting you. Oh, and — do you have an aspirin?
That was the gist of Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey’s mea culpa this week. In a series of tweets Thursday, Dorsey confessed that the company “didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of the instant, public and global messaging it pioneered. “We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough,” he said. “We’ve focused most of our efforts on removing content against our terms, instead of building a systemic framework to help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking.”
Dorsey is asking the public to help Twitter get better. It is inviting outside experts to submit proposals for ways to define and measure the “health” of conversation on the platform, presumably as a first step toward improving it. As a first attempt, Dorsey has suggested four metrics based on the work of an MIT-affiliated nonprofit: shared attention (is there overlap in what we’re talking about?); shared reality (are we using the same facts?); variety (are we exposed to different opinions grounded in shared reality?); and receptivity (are we open, civil and listening to different opinions?).
It is good to see that Twitter is finally acknowledging its ill health. It is even better to hear it’s open to intervention. The problem is that the service may be too far gone to recover — and it is unclear whether this initiative is a last gasp or a real attempt to change.
The reasoning behind this proposal is probably not just a noble commitment to public health. Platforms such as Twitter have clearly realized that if they don’t begin to self-correct, the government is going to do it for them through regulations that may not be as gentle as those they would impose on themselves. And in the long run, the flaws in their systems represent an existential threat worth getting ahead of. Being seen as a destroyer of democracy and a net negative to public trust isn’t exactly great branding. A short-term cure, if painful, might offer the inoculation that platforms such as Twitter need for long-term survival.
After all, Twitter has been plagued by bots, trolls, misinformation and harassment for several years, and was a major front in the election interference campaign that started in 2016. Its troubles have continued since — there are currently a large number of accounts still confidently tweeting that the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., was a false flag , and that student-activist David Hogg is a “crisis actor.” Here, we might extend a special thank-you to Russia, which saw that we had the beginnings of a conversational cold and proceeded to give us the equivalent of partisan food poisoning to go along with it. But that country’s ability to do so was in large part because of social media’s unsalutary influence.
Experts are split on whether the battle against online misinformation can ever be won. According to any of the four measures that Dorsey cited, the platform certainly seems to be faring poorly — a cursory click on any of its “trending” topics will confirm that “shared reality” and “receptivity” are particular trouble spots. As a whole, the United States doesn’t seem to be doing much better, judging by the partisan nature of our public debates and the inflammatory statements emanating from the Twitter feed of our highest public official.
Still, there are reasons for hope as well as cynicism. For a while, social media — Twitter included — has seemingly functioned primarily as a vector of incivility. Bad actors have been allowed to flourish on the platform, commitments to change have been made and forgotten, and offenses to our social health have been allowed to mount as long as they resulted in user growth and “engagement” — the metrics that shareholders have actually valued. But let’s give Dorsey some credit. His call for outside input could signal the beginning of true public accountability. This invitation for external suggestions and oversight may actually be Twitter’s way of pressuring itself to follow through, knowing that less sympathetic parties will be watching.
It may not turn out to be exactly what the doctor ordered, but it’s a start.
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