By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Twitter solves a business problem. But in the long run, it won’t matter all that much.

A few quick thoughts on Twitter’s decision to cancel Donald Trump’s account.

I was never among those who called for Trump to be thrown off the platform. I have mixed feelings about it even now. But this is not an abridgement of the First Amendment, and I suspect it will be proven to be not that big a deal as social media fracture into various ideological camps.

First, the free-speech argument: Twitter is a private company that has always acted to remove content its executives believe is bad for business. Twitter not only isn’t the government; it’s also not a public utility like the phone company, or for that matter like the broader internet, both of which are built upon principles of free speech no matter how loathsome. As Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins, a lawyer, put it:

The not-a-big-deal argument is a little harder to make. Trump, after all, had more than 88 million Twitter followers, and it was the main way he communicated with his supporters and the broader public. But it’s a big world. He can switch to Parler, a Twitter-like application friendly to right-wingers. Yes, it’s tiny now, but how long would it stay tiny with Trump as its star?

Consider, too, the news that Apple and Google are taking steps to throw Parler off their app stores. So what? Parler could just tell its users to access the platform via the mobile web instead of through apps. This isn’t as exotic as it might sound. Twitter and Facebook members don’t have to use the apps, for instance. They can simply use their phone’s web browsers, and in some ways the experience is better.

Boston Globe columnist Hiawatha Bray writes that “even after this week’s crackdown on his inflammatory and misleading Internet postings, Trump is likely to remain an online force.” Indeed.

The reason that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey waited so long to act — until Trump called a coup against his own government in the waning days of his presidency — is that Dorsey understands banning Trump will ultimately prove futile, and that it will endanger Twitter’s dominant role in social media by speeding up the emergence of ideologically sorted alternatives.

Dorsey solved his immediate problem. It’s likely that the worst is yet to come, but at least he’ll be able to tell his shareholders that he did the best that he could.

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  1. MagellanNH

    First – I appreciate the nuance Dan brings to this discussion. It’s refreshing to hear journalists getting into the complexity of this issue rather than parroting misleading slogans and unhelpful simplifications. Thanks for that.

    IMO, one of the best sources on the Internet for untangling the complicated and intertwined issues around this topic is Mike Masnick’s site Ken White (@popehat) is great for general first amendment stuff, but Masnick and his team have a very deep understanding of the issues around section 230.

    Here’s a sample of techdirt’s writing:

    “An important thing to remember is that most of what people complain about when they complain about Section 230 are things that the First Amendment allows to happen. The First Amendment is likely to insulate platforms from liability in their users’ content, and it’s also likely to insulate them from liability for their moderation decisions. Section 230 helps drive those points home explicitly for providers of “interactive computer services” (which, it should be noted, include far more than just “big tech” platforms; they also include much smaller and non-commercial ICS providers as well, and even individual people), but even if there were no Section 230 the First Amendment would still be there to do the job of protecting platforms in this way. At least in theory.”

    • Steve Ross

      Until recently, the complaint is that it shields social media vendors from libel, even though the users themselves are not shielded. Traditional news outlets are not shielded. I edit a magazine. If I allow libel to occur, I and my magazine may pay damages. Yet I have to compete against the likes of Facebook! Ask any aggrieved former partner being lied about. Ask the parents of dead children who were victims in mass shootings. Section 230 needs to be tightened or abolished completely.

      • MagellanNH

        >> Ask any aggrieved former partner being lied about. Ask the parents of dead children who were victims in mass shootings. Section 230 needs to be tightened or abolished completely.

        Many legal experts believe repealing section 230 wouldn’t impact the liability of platforms for hosting 3rd party content very much. The case law for how liability would be assigned under common law (pre 230) is mixed but the point of confusion is over whether platforms that heavily moderate content could become liable for 3rd party content (perhaps the source of the confusion over the platforms vs publishers distinction. Under 230, that distinction is irrelevant, if 230 is revealed, platforms may be incentivized to moderate less to avoid liability.

        This article delves into what platform liability would like like if 230 gets repealed:
        “Since there was no dispute that CompuServe was unaware of the contents of the article when it was available online in its forum, we argued to the federal district court in New York that CompuServe was no different from any ordinary library, bookstore, or newsstand, which, under both the law of libel and the First Amendment, are not subject to civil or criminal liability for the materials they disseminate to the public if they have no knowledge of the material’s content at the time they disseminate it. The court agreed and entered summary judgment for CompuServe, finding that CompuServe had not “published” the alleged libel, which a plaintiff must prove in order to impose liability on a defendant under the common law of libel.”

  2. Steve Ross

    Remember that Twitter has historically been more open with its data, allowing academics to study user dynamics in greater depth than any other major social media platform. This is actually a revenue source for Twitter.

    When it banned almost 3000 fake Russian accounts in summer 2017, for instance, we could trace derisive and anti-HRC popular among Progressives and Trump supporters back to those accounts.

    I’ve been studying humanitarian organizations’ use of social media to inform on chronic problems (disasters are easy… chronic is hard) and Twitter is invaluable for exposing dynamics.

  3. There is such a thing as Terms of Service, which Trump has been allowed to violate at will. That’s the reason enough all along to suspend him or shut him off.

  4. Steve Ross

    Not sure the Compuserve case is relevant today. Social media is now powered by instant characterization of content, so that the content can be trended, indexed, etc. It is true that innocent content can and does get trapped. Is it a price we can pay?

    • MagellanNH

      You may be right. I’m just a layperson, so I can only relay what I’ve read from experts who seem to understand this stuff.

      I suppose it all just leads us back to where we started – that this stuff is complicated and intertangled and simple framings of the problem and simple solutions are unlikely to be useful.

      • Steve Ross

        You are fine. None of us know everything… or even much of anything. Credit us both for following Dan Kennedy. He’s careful, he knows how complicated the world is, and while I don’t agree with all that he says (what a dull world that would be), his arguments are almost all well-reasoned. I’m old enough to have been a user of CompuServe, the Electronic Information Exchange System at NJIT, and Dow-Jones Information Retrieval. None exist today. I had a communications account on DARPANET (which became the Internet) more than 50 years ago, while I was in college. So I lived through these arguments and court cases. We used to send messages disguised as data, or on top of data, before true email existed. The idea of separating an email name and domain name with an @ sign was not invented until 1971 (at BBN in Cambridge). I got my undergraduate degree in 1969… the same year Telnet protocol was invented (to allow a terminal to mimic a teletype machine). Until then, you sent messages from mainframe computer to computer, not person to person, because who the hell had their own teletype machine… and because, as noted, email had not yet been invented.

        All this is to say that whatever we do with Section 230, it really has to be carefully thought out. Careful, detailed thought is not a strong point in the White House these days… and that is painfully obvious. But most progressives are much better at pointing out things that need solving, than they are at actually solving them. I am amused that (as Trump complains about), it is very difficult to libel a public figure — you have to recklessly disregard the truth. Public figures do that all the time. Newspapers and broadcasters allow attack ads that have little or nothing in common with reality.

        Vested interests are already muddying the waters.

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