Social media companies won’t tolerate hate speech, they say, yet they publish it every day. And I use that word ‘publish’ deliberately. They do publish it. They don’t just ‘host’ that content, or enable third parties to add their own content. They’re responsible for that content in the same way that the New York Times or Die Welt is responsible for its own stories. And that’s a problem. Because social media companies let racists and pornographers and misogynists add content on their platforms that they say they don’t tolerate. But if you publish it, you do tolerate it. And that makes social media companies racists and pornographers and misogynists too. Yet they’re excused by legislators and traditional media because the other option is now unthinkable. They have become too big to fail, too big to be brought to account.
Is this the principled reason that I left Twitter, now some months ago? Well, yes and no. The reasons are based both in principle and in self-interest and mental self-preservation. I realised that Twitter is a particularly suffocating and unhealthy form of digital experience in a number of different ways. Like all social media, it’s bad not only for individual mental health, but, as ‘an aggregator of venom’, as one critic put it, it has had a pernicious and ruinous effect on us all. The most visible effect of this has been the presidency of that tinpot reality TV dictator and pussy-grabber-in-chief, Trump, who used Twitter as his mouthpiece to frame his own narcissistic version of reality. Twitter only pulled the plug on him in the last week of his presidency. But that belies the fact that Twitter was Trump’s most important means of getting his divisive voice heard in an uncritical way. Of course people post critical replies, but Trump chose the message he wanted to put out and he could broadcast it whenever he wanted. Twitter let him do that.
Twitter with its cute bird logo and cutesy name and pseudo-hipster entrepreneur CEO is actually a sham for an old media trick: divisiveness sells, antagonism sells, hatred sells. Sure, there are some good things about it as platform. As Owen Jones wrote: ‘Twitter is simultaneously many things: a means of elevating otherwise ignored voices, a platform for facilitating debate, a portal to access a bewildering array of information – and a cesspit of hatred.’ Twitter’s business model is built on friction and disagreement. It aims to polarise and fails to offer an opportunity for resolution. As John Poederetz put it in his article ‘Why I quit Twitter and you should too’: ‘It rewards bad rhetorical behavior, it privileges outrage of any sort over reason of all sorts, and it encourages us to misunderstand each other. It’s the devil on our shoulder.’
CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey couldn’t be more out of his depth with his Frankenstein’s Monster. And just like Frankenstein, I don’t think he had any idea of what he was giving birth to. Twitter began as a simple way of letting people know your status in realtime. That word ‘status’ has a dual meaning, of course: it can mean what you’re doing at any given point, and your social standing. These two things are interlinked: by telling people what you’re doing you’re also relating an implicit narrative about your social status. Yet the widespread understanding of what Twitter’s true purpose was revolved around the first of these definitions when it first started out. Dorsey’s first tweet, remember, was ‘just setting up my twttr’. And there was lots of media commentary which now seems obtuse, but which was at the time I think written in reasonably good faith, about ‘not wanting to let everyone know what I’m doing at any given point in the day.’ If you look at 2007 screenshots of Twitter, such as those of tweets posted by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, they fall firmly into this category. ‘Livy is making me watch the Giants game’, ‘Getting a Centro salad to go.’ etc. In an interview with the LA Times in 2009 Dorsey talked about the origins of the name Twitter: ‘We came across the word twitter, and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds”. And that’s exactly what the product was.’
Everything points to the fact that Dorsey had no idea that Twitter would turn into a platform that people would use to develop complex personal narratives, advance political and celebrity careers, argue over intellectual and aesthetic points, and publish pornography and hate speech. I mean, ‘just setting up my twttr’ reeks more than anything of naivety – he sounds like an entrepreneur technologist with little or no ethical, philosophical or humanitarian sense, like a large number of people who work in Silicon Valley and other digital startups around the world. And subsequent events seem to have proven this. Of course, as anyone who has worked in the digital industry knows, products are iterative: they evolve quickly. Twitter is different now to when it started. It will continue to change. Yet it still has not yet addressed the hatred at its heart. My contention is that it cannot, because it realises that violent disagreement and outrage is an essential cog of its machine. The only way to undermine the power of social media platforms like Twitter is for people to vote with their feet and stop using them. There have been various short-term boycotts but until enough people boycott it not just for 24 or 48 hours, but for good, the blithely positive, entrepreneurial faux-naivety of the Dorseys and Zuckerbergs of this world will mean that the power and the hatred will continue to grow.