Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Series of drawn human faces
Photo by Joanjo Pavon on Unsplash

No, Twitter Is Not the New Awful

It’s the Old Awful back for more. It’s the Town Without Pity we all tried to get away from

Terry Teachout, the drama critic who reviewed Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, woke up one Sunday morning (December 2, 2018) to a home invasion, of a sort:

In case you hadn’t noticed, @terryteachout, my Twitter account, was hacked on Sunday morning as part of a cross-platform attack on my social-media presence. The objective, it seems, was ransom: I actually received a series of telephone calls from the culprits, who appear to reside in England. Needless to say, I hung up and immediately started changing passwords and building a higher security wall.
Terry Teachout, “Home invasion—with a happy ending” at Arts Journal

The extortionists had posted racist and sexist material to @terryteachout. The drama critic asked for a replacement account, @TerryTeachout1, which meant losing 15,000 followers and all previous tweets. Unfortunately, Twitter was slow to respond, with the result that the offensive material was visible under his name “well into Monday.” Meanwhile, he did receive this message from Twitter Support late Sunday night:

We’ve investigated the reported account and have determined that it is not in violation of Twitter’s impersonation policy. In order for an account to be in violation…it must portray another person…in a misleading or deceptive manner.

Teachout was, well, surprised: “Is it any wonder that more and more people are getting fed up with Twitter?”

The story buzzed virally through Monday. Who would have believed that Twitter was so indifferent to racism, sexism, and users’ reputations? As the volume grew, Twitter eventually assigned the previously bot-managed case to a human being, who deleted the hacked account by 6:00 pm and verified @TerryTeachout1 as the replacement. Sadly, Teachout was later to learn that the hackers had also planted a trojan-horse virus on his laptop which erased his mailbox and address book as well.

Twitter seems to be a town that doesn’t care what happens to you unless you have lots of friends to create a buzz. And at least one well-known USA Today commentator is refusing to live there any more.  Law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds deleted his 100k-follower Twitter account early this month, in response to the sudden, permanent ban on radio host Jesse Kelly, whom he followed (“something that seems to be happening more and more”):

Unlike blogs, little to no thought is required (the character limit discourages it), and in practice very few people even follow the link (if there is one) to “read the whole thing.” The “block” and “mute” functions on Twitter are intended to protect against Usenet-style flamewars, but to the extent that they work, they also put people in bubbles of similar thinkers, which tends to encourage the spread of misinformation so long as it matches the thinkers’ prejudices.
Glen Harlan Reynolds, “I deleted my Twitter account. It’s a breeding ground for thoughtlessness and contempt.” at USA Today

Kelly’s account was reinstated later but the lesson wasn’t lost on anyone that, as George Gilder points out in Life after Google a free service can ban anyone it likes.

Is Twitter the 288-character town that just doesn’t like conservatives?

Some are blase about such bans and departures. “Wake me up when this sad little uprising is over,” one senior online media writer sneers in response:

Like it or not, Twitter is a publisher, not a common carrier like the phone company or the public square, to which many have compared it. As a publisher, Twitter has established standards of conduct for what may appear in its pages. You might disagree with those standards and the way the company enforces them, but it’s Twitter’s house—just as the pages of the Washington Post are Jeff Bezos’ house. People who acquire a Twitter account have no more right to see their words appear on the site than I do to see my letter published in the Post, even though I’m a subscriber. Jack Shafer, “The Conservative Revolt Against Twitter” at Politico

Author and columnist Michelle Malkin differs: “But this battle is about much more than free speech rights. It’s about whether the high-and-mighty progressives who monopolize global social media platforms truly believe in nurturing a free speech culture.” She calls attention to the fact that it very much depends on whether the source of the abusive comment is, say, new media reporter Laura Loomer (banned) or New York Times editorial writer Sarah Jeong (not banned). Both women became controversial on account of politically incorrect tweets.

Actually, conservatives are not the only ones concerned. Seattle writer Lindy West told The Guardian she was off Twitter two years ago because she felt it wasn’t doing nearly enough to combat “Nazis”:

I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”. I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators. Lindy West, “I’ve left Twitter. It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators” at The Guardian

Others have tried fighting back. One Seattle-based feminist has learned a few things from trying to reason with Twitter trolls:

The vast majority of my interactions were frustrating. Some didn’t reply at all, or disappeared instantly the moment I engaged them – blocking me, even though they were the ones who had attacked me initially.

With others, it was like trying to converse with a piercing alarm. Once they realized a live human being had seen their initial tweet, they unleashed a torrent of insults, in a sort of frenzied, rapid-fire slew of hate and misogyny. This wasn’t about conversation. This wasn’t about intelligent debate. This wasn’t even really about me. This was about unleashing all of the hate they’d accrued for women over the years. Geraldine DeRuiter, “What Happened When I Tried Talking to Twitter Abusers” at Everywhereist

Some research has found, unsurprisingly, that “higher levels of trait psychopathy and sadism” predicted trolling behavior. If so, political labels could be flags of convenience.

Twitter is a virtual town without pity for everyone

Helen Andrews observes the scene from the bitter experience of having her career destroyed by a vengeful ex-boyfriend,

The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. Helen Andrews, “Shame storm” at First Things

Andrews adds that PR consultant Ryan Holiday recounts in his memoir, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator that he could do little for a client who was accused of racism or sexism on Twitter: “I’d tell him the whole system is broken and evil, and I’m sorry it’s attacking him. But there’s nothing that can be done.” Twitter mobs delight in destruction, not dialogue.

The fact that Twitter functions without efficient gatekeepers, as Teachout discovered, also tempts us to overestimate the social reach of the unhinged: David Harsanyi cautions at The Federalist, “Whatever the case, it’s become a misleading tactic of some journalists to collect random tweets of crazy people or anonymous attention-seekers and use them as a digital strawman.”

Sometimes Twitter gets noticed by the wider world in a really big way

Image result for Dennis Horak, Canadian diplomat

SCTH President receives Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak  (November 16, 2017)

CEO Jack Dorsey struggled over the problem of whether to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (“We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules”) but in the end, banned him. But sometimes what happens isn’t up to Dorsey. Saudi Arabia threw out Canada’s ambassador this summer over government-sponsored tweets about human rights violations there. It stopped new trade, gave orders to withdraw Saudi investment in Canada, canceled flights to Canada, and told 8,300 Saudi post-secondary students to come back. The tweet? “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”

According to the Canadian government broadcaster,

At the UN in September, during an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir accused Canada of treating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) like a banana republic. “You can talk to us about human rights anytime you want, we’d be happy to have that conversation like we do with all our allies, but lecturing us? No way. Not going to happen.” Adrienne Arsenault, “Dennis Horak:Yeah, yeah, not a fan… A serious overreaction’: Ex-Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia breaks silence on tweet-fuelled clash ” at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Now-retired ambassador Horak pointedly observes that both the United States and Britain criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record but they publish reports, not tweets. Perhaps the question is not so much what was said but the venue chosen. Which brings us back to the earlier question, what is Twitter anyway?

If Twitter is a publisher, is it prepared to take responsibility for incidents of this type? If it is a public utility, should it be regulated and, if so, how and by whom? Is it is a social free-for-all? If so, why is a sovereign G-7 government using it as a communications channel?

Twitter got started only a dozen years ago and Jack Dorsey is hardly in a position to answer such broad questions. Recently, he garnered criticism for vacationing in Myanmar in order to practice Vispissana asceticism:

Putting aside the grossness of a billionaire visiting a third world country specifically in order to deprive himself of the worldly goods he so easily comes by, people criticized Dorsey specifically for the way he described Myanmar, and his unique position as a tech CEO.

See, the Rohingya genocide isn’t just any ethnically targeted mass-murder. In August, the United Nations found that Facebook had played a significant role in spreading the hate and disinformation that led to the expulsion, murder, and rape of Rohingya Muslims. The New York Times has gone so far to describe it as a “tool for ethnic cleansing.” Rachel Kraus, “Jack non-apologizes for his tone deaf Myanmar vacation tweets” at Mashable

In fairness, Dorsey is Twitter’s CEO; Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg’s giant headache. But Kraus’s criticism once again focuses our question: Are these social media the telephone company (a communications platform), the newspaper (a publisher), or interconnected private gossip klatsches where anyone can say whatever they want, whatever ensues?

The town never had any pity, it’s true. The awful stuff people complain about also happened offline, long before Twitter. It just wasn’t written down and archived then. Twitter amplifies something it did not create. And Dorsey is not going to be able to address the problem alone.

See also: Twitter doesn’t just seem out of control. It actually is.


Does Democracy Demand a War on Twitterbots? A key concern is that citizens could be induced to vote for a demagogue by Twitterbots spreading fake news.

No, Twitter Is Not the New Awful