Twitter’s headache after Trump leaves

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SvD Näringsliv

This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on November 9th, 2020.

Polarizing. Accusatory. Seditious. The unfiltered outbursts on Twitter have long been Donald Trump’s main channel of communication. The question for Twitter going forward is not only how to deal with Trump after he loses power – but also the actors who engage in disinformation.

Tech companies are often accused of negatively affecting democracy by facilitating the spread of falsehoods. Often the accusations come from media companies. Twitter’s new policy for how to handle the election is the latest example in the cat-and-mouse game that is taking place in the crossroads of technology, politics and the media. Should companies like Facebook and Twitter take responsibility for what is spread in their channels, or are they just a neutral communicator?

The line has so far been the latter, protected by Section 230. It means that companies are not legally responsible for what other people spread on their services, which is in contrast to how ordinary media companies are regulated.

In the media industry, it is often said that there is a difference between opinion material and news material. But this boundary is becoming increasingly subtle and hidden in an American media landscape where polarization often is rewarded. In that context, putting all the responsibility on Facebook and Twitter spreading extreme or false articles, without looking at how the articles themselves came about and were presented, is not seeing the whole picture.

Of course, there are many examples of pure misinformation produced and distributed with intent. This is of course deeply worrying and problematic. But there are significantly more articles from ordinary US media companies that end up in something of a gray area, and that get widely spread on social media.

Media researcher Johan Farkas spoke last year about how complicated it is to distinguish fake news from real news that is spread with the intention of not showing the full or the correct picture. The polarization that we see in the United States, which encompasses both the media and the general worldview, can therefore not only be traced to the production of hard-line opinion material, or the spread of it through social media. The two go hand in hand.

Take the tabloid New York Post that saw a Biden-critical article blocked by Twitter in mid-October. They are not alone in having become an actor, perhaps a little more involuntarily than many others.

There is a lot of talk about MSNBC and Fox News being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but less so about companies like the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has 190 local TV channels in the United States and reaches 40 percent of all Americans. Sinclair is owned by Trump supporter David D Smith who has on several occasions sent out scripts to news anchors who repeated Donald Trump’s talking points. In addition, there is OANN (One America News Network) which has spread several false conspiracy theories and is now part of the group of journalists who have access to the White House.

On the left side are smaller, but for many familiar, sites like Vox, Mother Jones and Slate. They are much less extreme, but at the same time very culturally influential and distinct in their positions.

How does one deal with this?

A possible solution is to treat tech companies in the same way as media companies. Then they would have to be responsible for what is published or spread on their sites.

This would not solve all the problems, but it would have moved us from the alleged neutral role when it comes to spreading. The tech companies could then help address the shortcomings that the media has today, instead of enhancing them. Tech companies can take a much more active role in coming up with solutions to these new, complex, problems.

They have long wanted to avoid being considered media companies, but it is no longer a reasonable defence to say that these are difficult issues to solve. It is difficult to put out a fire in a house that is soaked in gasoline – but the problem is not the igniting spark, but rather why the house was so flammable from the beginning. The problems we are seeing are consequences of decisions made by tech companies. You are responsible for these consequences – regardless of the original intention. For Twitter, it is now important to walk the fine line where you deal with these issues, but without ensuring that Section 230 gets thrown out.

What about Trump, then? In the aftermath of the election, he will continue to go to Twitter to question the results. As it stands today, Twitter will limit the visibility of his falsehoods. It took many years – and several political elections – for them to develop a policy where they did so. Anxiety about having Section 230 repealed probably played into their slow decision-making.

World leaders have a special position on Twitter. They often get to post falsehoods with a simple warning flag, while regular users need to delete them. But as Bloomberg describes, this policy is not something that applies to former world leaders.

Since there is no indication that Trump’s Twitter account will be silent on the day he leaves the White House, he will probably soon have to adapt to the same rules as the rest of us.

This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on November 9th, 2020.

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