Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said he is rethinking core parts of the social media platform so it doesn’t enable the spread of hate speech, harassment and false news, including conspiracy theories shared by prominent users like Alex Jones and Infowars.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Dorsey said he was experimenting with features that would promote alternative viewpoints in Twitter’s timeline to address misinformation and reduce “echo chambers.” He also expressed openness to labeling bots — automated accounts that sometimes pose as human users — and redesigning key elements of the social network, including the “like” button and the way Twitter displays users’ follower counts.
“The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we’re building into our product,” Dorsey said. “Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don't think they are correct anymore.”
Dorsey’s openness to broad changes shows how Silicon Valley leaders are increasingly reexamining the most fundamental aspects of the technologies that have made these companies so powerful and profitable. At Facebook, for example, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has commissioned a full review of his company’s products to emphasize safety and trust, from mobile payments to event listings.
As at other tech companies, Twitter’s software algorithms seek to serve users the content they’re most likely to want to see. But tweets with incorrect information can easily and quickly proliferate through retweets, especially if a user with a large following amplifies it among a larger base of users. Meanwhile, Twitter allows users to sign up using pseudonyms, which it sees as vital for allowing the most vulnerable users to speak without fear of persecution. Yet that also allows some users to post incendiary, hateful content that they might be less inclined to share using their real names.
Twitter’s core features have been exploited by the Web’s most malicious actors, including Russians who spread propaganda during the 2016 election to stir political unrest in the United States. In response, regulators have pushed tech giants to police the content that appears on their sites and services, a role that some find uncomfortable given the industry’s historic hands-off role in favor of free speech.
Earlier this month, Apple, Facebook and Spotify took action against Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, whose videos, podcasts and other content have spread conspiracy theories about political figures and attacked victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Initially, Twitter broke with its peers and allowed Infowars to continue using its service.
But late Tuesday, Twitter imposed a seven-day “timeout” on Jones after he encouraged his followers to get their “battle rifles” ready against critics in the “mainstream media” and on the left. Twitter imposed the same limitation on the main Infowars account on Wednesday, which means neither account can tweet during the suspension.
In recent months, Twitter has made several changes to promote safety and trust. It has introduced new machine learning software to monitor account behavior and is suspending over a million problematic accounts a day. The company has updated its policies to emphasize that content that is “dehumanizing” or causes “real-world harm” would not be permitted, but Dorsey said executives were still figuring out how to define those terms.
Dorsey said Twitter hasn’t changed its incentives, which were originally designed to nudge people to interact and keep them engaged, in the 12 years since Twitter was founded. “We often turn to policy to fix a lot of these issues, but I think that is only treating surface-level symptoms that we are seeing,” Dorsey said.
With more limited resources than Facebook or Google, though, Twitter has to be selective about its investments in safety. “Choosing to do one of them comes at a cost of not doing something else because of the number of resources we have,” Dorsey said.
One solution Twitter is exploring is to surround false tweets with factual context, Dorsey said. Earlier this week, a tweet from an account that parodied Peter Strzok, an FBI agent fired for his anti-Trump text messages, called the president a “madman” and has garnered more than 56,000 retweets. More context about a tweet, including “tweets that call it out as obviously fake,” could help people “make judgments for themselves,” Dorsey said.
Twitter some day could also label automated accounts, which businesses also use to send out information such as weather or stock prices, Dorsey said. State legislators in California and federal lawmakers such as Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have proposed putting such a requirement into law. Dorsey said the company had not done so yet “because we’ve prioritized other work that we believe will have greater impact,” including shutting down fake accounts.
Twitter’s new policies are being tested at the highest level — including by President Trump, whose tweets are a direct challenge. On Tuesday, Trump called former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who recently published a tell-all about her time at the White House, a “dog.” He also attacked Harley-Davidson on Sunday for moving jobs overseas — a move that precipitated a 2 percent drop in the company’s stock price.
Dorsey stuck to his long-held view that an exception generally would be granted to Trump because his comments are newsworthy and give users crucial insights as to how “global leaders think and treat the people around them.”
Dorsey’s visit to Washington this week marks his latest attempt at outreach in the nation’s capital. Throughout the summer, he met privately with members of Congress who have called for new regulation of Silicon Valley, while huddling with the country’s top conservatives, some of whom have alleged that Twitter is biased against right-leaning news and views.
Dorsey, along with executives from Google and Facebook, is set to return in September for a high-profile Senate hearing about Russian efforts to spread disinformation and destabilize U.S. politics ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.