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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We shouldn’t let Trump’s Twitter tantrum stop us from taking a new look at online speech protections

Photo (cc) 2019 by Trending Topics 2019

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s probably not a good idea for us to talk about messing around with free speech on the internet at a moment when the reckless authoritarian in the White House is threatening to dismantle safeguards that have been in place for nearly a quarter of a century.

On the other hand, maybe there’s no time like right now. President Donald Trump is not wrong in claiming there are problems with Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Of course, he’s wrong about the particulars — that is, he’s wrong about its purpose, and he’s wrong about what would happen if it were repealed. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about the harmful effects of 230 and what we might do to lessen them.

Simply put, Section 230 says that online publishers can’t be held legally responsible for most third-party content. In just the past week Trump took to Twitter and falsely claimed that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had murdered a woman who worked in his office and that violent protesters should be shot in the street. At least in theory, Trump, but not Twitter, could be held liable for both of those tweets — the first for libeling Scarborough, the second for inciting violence.

Ironically, without 230, Twitter no doubt would have taken Trump’s tweets down immediately rather than merely slapping warning labels on them, the action that provoked his childish rage. It’s only because of 230 that Trump is able to lie freely to his 24 million (not 80 million, as is often reported) followers without Twitter executives having to worry about getting sued.

As someone who’s been around since the earliest days of online culture, I have some insight into why we needed Section 230, and what’s gone wrong in the intervening years.

Back in the 1990s, the challenge that 230 was meant to address had as much to do with news websites as it did with early online services such as Prodigy and AOL. Print publications such as newspapers are legally responsible for everything they publish, including letters to the editor and advertisements. After all, the landmark 1964 libel case of New York Times v. Sullivan involved an ad, not the paper’s journalism.

But, in the digital world, holding publications strictly liable for their content proved to be impractical. Even in the era of dial-up modems, online comments poured in too rapidly to be monitored. Publishers worried that if they deleted some of the worst comments on their sites, that would mean they would be seen as exercising editorial control and were thus legally responsible for all comments.

The far-from-perfect solution: take a hands-off approach and not delete anything, not even the worst of the worst. At least to some extent, Section 230 solved that dilemma. Not only did it immunize publishers for third-party content, but it also contained what is called a “Good Samaritan” provision — publishers were now free to remove some bad content without making themselves liable for other, equally bad content that they might have missed.

Section 230 created an uneasy balance. Users could comment freely, which seemed to many of us in those more optimistic times like a step forward in allowing news consumers to be part of the conversation. (That’s where Jay Rosen’s phrase “the people formerly known as the audience” comes from.) But early hopes faded to pessimism and cynicism once we saw how terrible most of those comments were. So we ignored them.

That balance was disrupted by the rise of the platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter. And that’s because they had an incentive to keep users glued to their sites for as long as possible. By using computer algorithms to feed users more of what keeps them engaged, the platforms are able to show more advertising to them. And the way you keep them engaged is by showing them content that makes them angry and agitated, regardless of its truthfulness. The technologist Jaron Lanier, in his 2018 book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” calls this “continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale.”

Which brings us to the tricky question of whether government should do something to remove these perverse incentives.

Earlier this year, Heidi Legg, then at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, published an op-ed in The Boston Globe arguing that Section 230 should be modified so that the platforms are held to the same legal standards as other publishers. “We should not allow the continued free-wheeling and profiteering of this attention economy to erode democracy through hyper-polarization,” she wrote.

Legg told me she hoped her piece would spark a conversation about what Section 230 reform might look like. “I do not have a solution,” she said in a text exchange on (what else?) Twitter, “but I have ideas and I am urging the nation and Congress to get ahead of this.”

Well, I’ve been thinking about it, too. And one possible approach might be to remove Section 230 protections from any online publisher that uses algorithms in order to drive up engagement. When 230 was enacted, third-party content flowed chronologically. By removing protections from algorithmic content, the law would recognize that digital media have fundamentally changed.

If Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook want to continue profiting from the divisiveness they’ve helped foster, then maybe they should have to pay for it by assuming the same legal liability for third-party content as print publishers. Dorsey would quickly find that his tentative half-steps are insufficient — and Zuckerberg would have to abandon his smug refusal to do anything about Trump’s vile comments.

But wouldn’t this amount to heavy-handed government regulation? Not at all. In fact, loosening Section 230 protections would push us in the opposite direction, toward deregulation. After all, holding publishers responsible for libel, invasions of privacy, threats of violence and the like is the default in our legal system. Section 230 was a regulatory gift, and it turns out that we were too generous.

Let me concede that I don’t know how practical my idea would be. Like Legg, I offer it out of a sense that we need to have a conversation about the harm that social media are doing to our democracy. I’m a staunch believer in the First Amendment, so I think it’s vital to address that harm in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s free-speech rights. Ending special regulatory favors for certain types of toxic corporate behavior seems like one way of doing that with a relatively light touch.

And if that meant Trump could no longer use Twitter as a megaphone for hate speech, wild conspiracy theories and outright disinformation, well, so much the better.

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Does Twitter need Trump? Not as much as you might think.

Statistic: Number of monthly active Twitter users worldwide from 1st quarter 2010 to 1st quarter 2019 (in millions) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista.

You might think that Twitter would have a financial incentive to cave in to President Trump’s incoherent, unconstitutional threats over the platform’s decision to label some of his false tweets as, you know, false. In fact, Trump’s presence on Twitter is not as big a deal to the company as you might think.

First, we often hear that Trump has 80 million followers. But is that really the case? According to analytics from the Fake Followers Audit, 70.2% of his followers are fake, which is defined as “accounts that are unreachable and will not see the account’s tweets (either because they’re spam, bots, propaganda, etc. or because they’re no longer active on Twitter).”

That’s not especially unusual among high-profile tweeters. For instance, 43% of former President Barack Obama‘s 118 million followers are fake. But it’s important to understand that Trump has about 24 million followers, not 80 million. That’s a big difference.

Even more important, Trump’s presence on Twitter has not had a huge effect on its total audience. According to Statista, the number of worldwide active monthly users hovered between a low of 302 million and a high of 336 million between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2019. (Zephoria reports that Twitter hasn’t released similar numbers since then.)

The bottom line is that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey could probably afford to throw Trump off the platform for repeatedly violating its terms of service. Still, he probably wouldn’t want to risk the outrage that would ensue from MAGA Country if Trump lost his favorite outlet for smearing the memory of a dead woman with his horrendous lies about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.

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Political ads on Facebook can be fixed. Is Mark Zuckerberg willing to try?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If nothing else, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proved himself to be a master of timing when he announced last week that his social network will ban all political ads.

Anger was still raging over Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statement that Facebook would not attempt to fact-check political advertising, thus opening the door to a flood of falsehoods. Taking direct aim at Zuckerberg, Dorsey tweeted: “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”

Not surprisingly, Twitter’s ad ban won widespread praise.

“This is a good call,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who had only recently tormented Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing. “Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”

Added Hillary Clinton: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”

Oh, but if only it were that simple. Advertising on social media is a cheap and effective way for underfunded candidates seeking less prominent offices to reach prospective voters. No, it’s not good for democracy if we are overwhelmed with lies. But, with some controls in place, Facebook and Twitter can be crucial for political candidates who can’t afford television ads. To get rid of all political advertising would be to favor incumbents over outsiders and longshots.

“Twitter’s ban on political ads disadvantages challengers and political newcomers,” wrote University of Utah communications researcher Shannon C. MacGregor in The Guardian. “Digital ads are much cheaper than television ads, drawing in a wider scope of candidates, especially for down-ballot races.”

And let’s be clear: Facebook, not Twitter, is what really matters. Journalists pay a lot of attention to Twitter because other journalists use it — as do politicians, bots and sociopaths. Facebook, with more than 2 billion active users around the world, is exponentially larger and much richer. For instance, the 2020 presidential candidates so far have spent an estimated $46 million on political ads on Facebook, compared to less than $3 million spent by all candidates on Twitter ads during the 2018 midterms.

But is political advertising on Facebook worth saving given the falsehoods, the attempts to deceive, that go way beyond anything you’re likely to see on TV?

In fact, there are some common-sense steps that might help fix Facebook ads.

Writing in The Boston Globe, technology journalist Josh Bernoff suggested that Facebook ban all targeting for political ads except for geography. In other words, candidates for statewide office ought to be able to target their ads so they’re not paying to reach Facebook users in other states. But they shouldn’t be able to target certain slices of the electorate, like liberals or conservatives, homeowners or renters, white people or African Americans (or “Jew haters,” as ProPublica discovered was possible in a nauseating exposé a couple of years ago.)

Bernoff also suggested that politicians be required to provide documentation to back up the facts in their ads. It’s a good idea, though it may prove impractical.

“Facebook is incapable of vetting political ads effectively and consistently at the global scale. And political ads are essential to maintaining the company’s presence in countries around the world,” wrote Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” in The New York Times.

But we may not have to go that far. The reason ads spreading disinformation are so effective on Facebook is that they fly under the radar, seen by tiny slices of the electorate and thus evading broader scrutiny. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued that the elimination of microtargeting could result in more truthful, less toxic advertising.

“Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values,” Weintraub wrote. “Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them.”

Calling for political ads to be banned on Facebook is futile. We live our lives on the internet these days, and Facebook has become (God help us) our most important distributor of news and information.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Nonprofit news update

Earlier this week The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit organization, making it the first daily newspaper to take that step. Unlike The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations, the Tribune will be fully nonprofit, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.

Nonprofit news isn’t exactly a novelty. Public media organizations like PBS, NPR and, yes, WGBH are nonprofit organizations. So are a number of pioneering community websites such as the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego. And if the Tribune succeeds, it could pave the way for other legacy newspapers.

Last May I wrote about what nonprofit status in Salt Lake could mean for the struggling newspaper business. This week’s announcement is a huge step forward.

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Twitter’s slide and newspaper apps that don’t quite work

Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.
Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Twitter, long a laggard behind Facebook, may be reaching a crisis point. Despite the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey, the stock price is sliding, its user base is stagnant and journalists — many of whom have long been enamored of Twitter because of its flexibility — are beginning to realize that far more of their audience is on Facebook.

Recently Umair Haque wrote a post for Medium headlined “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)” in which he argued that the platform has become the leading outlet for a certain type of nasty incivility — a place where “little violences that permeate the social web” get their more extravagant airing.

The post degenerates into overwrought handwringing. But before Haque gets to the part where he starts critiquing the meaning of life, he raises some important questions about Twitter. Why is Facebook (usually) a more civil place that fosters better conversations than Twitter?

Some of the answers seem obvious. On Facebook, you’re not bound by the 140-character restriction, which makes it more congenial for a conversation to develop. Facebook also makes it easier (though not as easy as it should) to define your community, whereas Twitter assumes you want everything to be open to everyone. Yes, you can fiddle with the settings, but it makes the service feel less useful.

A couple of years ago, I vastly preferred Twitter to Facebook. Now I find Facebook to be much more satisfying. I’m not sure whether Twitter has changed or if, instead, what I’m looking for in a social platform has evolved. Maybe it’s just that the novelty of Twitter has worn off.

Twitter recently unveiled curated stories called Moments, which might help in attracting those who were put off by the sheer labor you have to put into assembling a worthwhile list of feeds. If users started thinking about it differently — say, as more of a broadcast medium, a more flexible form of RSS, rather than as a place to have a conversation — that might help, too.

Or Twitter might curl up and die. Technologies come and go. There is no guarantee that Twitter will be one of the survivors, or that it should be.

The trouble with apps. Like many newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have bet the farm on online distribution. Each has tablet apps (the Post has two!) that create a reading experience somewhat similar to the print newspaper. As a regular reader of both papers, I want to point out a bug in each. (Caveat: I could be doing something wrong.)

First, the Globe app, which is based upon a replica of the print edition, has a feature that supposedly lets you share an article on Twitter or Facebook. But the link it produces does not take you to the article. Instead, it takes you to the App Store, where you are invited to download the Globe’s iPad app. Which, of course, you already have.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.22.53 AM

The app, designed by miLibris, has improved greatly since a buggy version was released some months back. But this particular bug has prevailed. Time to fix it, eh?

My issue with The Washington Post involves its “classic” app, which is older than the sexy new magazine-like app that’s included with Amazon Prime — but which is also more comprehensive. (An overview of the Post’s various digital products can be found here.)  It’s simple: the audio in videos does not play on my iPad, even though they are preceded by video ads that work just fine. The same videos also work fine when I try them on the newer app.

I would love to know whether the Globe and the Post are going to fix the bugs I’ve described — or if, as is always possible, I’m doing something boneheaded to create problems that don’t actually exist.