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This post is mainly intended as a comment on Jack Dorsey’s push for a native internet protocol for social media. The so-called “Twitter Files” is a part of the story.
In general, I try to stay out of politics and report as neutrally as I can about technology’s impact on society, and vice versa. However, Twitter Files have become a highly polarizing topic.
At the end of this piece, you can find excellent articles addressing them from independent journalists across the political spectrum.
Twitter Files and the political component of content moderation
Twitter Files are a series of “Twitter🧵” initiated by Elon Musk where three independent journalists – Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger – report on internal documents from the former Twitter administration. Overall, Twitter Files provide evidence of how content was moderated, stories were suppressed, and accounts were banned and shadow-banned according to either a left-leaning political agenda or by direct orders from the US government.
In regards to the political aspect, Twitter Files confirm accusations that US conservatives have made against Twitter for years. Jack Dorsey even admitted in 2018 that Twitter employees share a largely left-leaning bias although they were not instructed to act according to political ideology or viewpoints.
Critics could make a good case that Twitter under the new “Musk regime” is also biased. For example, a number of prominent journalists recently had their accounts temporarily suspended without any explanation. Matt Binder, one of the suspended journalists, wrote a piece about the incident here. As did Taylor Lorenz from Washington Post who was suspended this weekend here. The suspensions appear arbitrary, directed at journalists who have spoken disfavourably against Musk. When confronted with the fact, take a look at Musk’s outlash here.
It sets a dangerous precedence when freedom of speech becomes politicized. Overall, I think Peter McCormack, host of “What Bitcoin Did”, makes a good point:
While freedom of speech should in theory apply equally to everyone, content moderation is not completely neutral. Given a large enough sample size, there will always be edge cases that could be determined in either direction, and over time biases will show. In short, there is a political component to content moderation, while freedom of speech should apply equally to everyone. And as long as there is a central point of control or a “single point of failure” interference from governments and lobbyism is probably hard to avoid.
In the latest edition of Twitter Files, “Part Six TWITTER, THE FBI SUBSIDIARY“, Matt Taibbi writes about how the former Twitter Trust and Safety Chief routinely acted upon requests from the FBI to take down content. This can hardly come as a surprise! To anyone just remotely familiar with the Snowden revelations or FISA Section 702 – which authorizes extensive surveillance of foreign citizens – Taibbi’s post is a large nothingburger.
Jack Dorsey’s push for open social media
Last Tuesday, Jack Dorsey published a blog post on the Twitter-affiliated newsletter platform Revue where he addresses the “Twitter Files” and suggests “how to fix the identified issues”. Interestingly enough, Revue announced that they would shut down the platform just one day after Dorsey’s post. Seems like a strange coincidence.
Dorsey starts by uplisting three principles he believes a social media platform should adhere to:
1. Social media must be resilient to corporate and government control.
2. Only the original author may remove content they produce
3. Moderation is best implemented by algorithmic choice.
Twitter doesn’t reflect these principles and Dorsey takes full responsibility for it:
This is my fault alone, as I completely gave up pushing for them when an activist entered our stock in 2020.
Here, Dorsey is likely referring to the hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. which bought a majority share in Twitter that year.
In regards to Dorsey’s first principle – that social media must be resilient to corporate and government control – he writes:
Of course governments want to shape and control the public conversation, and will use every method at their disposal to do so, including the media. And the power a corporation wields to do the same is only growing. It’s critical that the people have tools to resist this, and that those tools are ultimately owned by the people. Allowing a government or a few corporations to own the public conversation is a path towards centralized control.
Dorsey’s second principle – that only the original author may remove content they produce – is controversial and probably hard to implement. At least from a legal standpoint. For example, Germany has passed a law that orders Facebook, Google, and Twitter to remove hate speech and “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours or face a fine of up to €50 Million.
Dorsey’s third principle – that moderation is best implemented by algorithmic choice – is about giving user’s more of a choice over what type of content they see. Users could be allowed to customize the filters of their algorithmic feeds, or alternatively choose between different “ranking providers”. If you’d like to learn more see Stephen Wolfram’s essay here.
As a whole, Dorsey’s principles allude to more decentralization, censorship resistance, transparency, and user control on social media. These are all key properties of Bitcoin. Not a coincidence since Dorsey is a keen Bitcoin supporter. The Web3 movement strives for the same values but, intentionally or not, Dorsey refrains from using ubiquitous marketing terms such as Web3 or crypto.
Instead, Dorsey calls for a free and open protocol for social media and points to projects such as AT Protocol, Mastodon, and Matrix as competing candidates to become a standard like HTTP or SMTP.
Web3 Vs the Open Internet
The term “Web3” is often associated with new NFT collections and discounts on token sales. Crypto opportunists and salespeople want to jam it down our throats. However, in the wake of Twitter’s Musk-induced existential crisis, there seems to be an organic push for a more open internet. Which is indeed the underlying philosophy of Web3. But the idea of a more open internet extends far beyond blockchain and crypto – although blockchain technology is likely a part of the solution. An open internet gives the user the power of choice between many different platforms, instead of complete dependency on a few, all-powerful ones.
Noah Smith writes in The internet wants to be fragmented:
People call Twitter an indispensable public space because it’s the “town square”, but in the real world, there isn’t just one town square, because there isn’t just one town. There are many. And the internet works when you can exit — when you can move to a different town if you don’t like the mayor or the local culture.
It will be interesting to see to what extent Elon Musk’s God complex and the divisiveness on Twitter will draw users toward other platforms. And if there will be a loud mass exodus at once, or if people will leave quietly through the backdoor over time like teens have done with Facebook. Either way, Twitter’s competitors are eyeing an opportunity to capitalize on the chaos, and it seems like the thick shackles on people’s attention and data are finally loosening up
Here are some excellent articles addressing “Twitter Files” from independent journalists across the political spectrum:
Mike Solana: The Fifth Estate
Abigail Shrier: Real Time Doxxing and the Littlest Musk
Matt Binder: Twitter has a freedom of speech problem and it’s Elon Musk
Also published here.
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