Dear Jack Dorsey: Yes Twitter Is Biased, But Your Bigger Problem Is Lack of Transparency
There is no better evidence of the utter dysfunction of our badly broken national dialogue than the fact that Twitter has such dramatic influence on it.
Twitter enables our dangerously short attention spans, and the character-limited format intrinsically elevates style over substance. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that such an outlet, seemingly built to appeal to a middle-school mentality, helped an emotionally immature bully with a seemingly bad case of ADHD become president of the United States. Not coincidentally, it has also become, contrary to Donald Trump’s promises, his preferred medium of communication while in office.
A lot has been said recently about Twitter’s other problems, particularly their alleged liberal bias (it’s not exactly stunning that a tech company based in Silicon Valley just outside of San Francisco would have a cultural bias against conservatives!). The issue of how they can maintain their user rules without destroying all semblance of free expression is a top concern lately.
Of course, these are important issues, and criticisms of how Twitter has dealt with them so far are generally valid. Personally, as a free speech advocate, I would prefer that accounts only be banned from Twitter if they make clear threats of violence or overtly break other laws, but, as a libertarian, I also acknowledge their right as a private company to do pretty much whatever they want in this realm. But that is an aside from what is in fact an even bigger problem here.
For my money,the most outrageous element by far of how Twitter does business is their complete lack of transparency. It’s related to, but not caused by, the above noted issues, and it is a major reason why they aren’t being resolved.
Most people have no problem following rules, but when guidelines are incredibly vague, arbitrarily enforced, and there is literally no human interaction during the process of administrating them, then profound problems are sure to ensue. Not to mention, if you’re acting in a biased fashion, or using your platform to selectively enforce speech, being utterly non-transparent is obviously the best way to get away with it. And of course, if you’re innocent of that bias, it should be obvious that hiding your methods and the decision-making aspects of your business obscures that innocence.
That’s why when Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey finally admitted over the weekend that “transparency” is indeed a major weakness of his social media platform, my ears immediately perked up. You see, I have had my own, incredibly confusing and frustrating experience with Twitter’s utterly infuriating lack of transparency.
Back when I was hosting a nationally syndicated weekend radio show (before Donald Trump won and I realized that there was no longer any place in talk radio for anyone critical of him), we would promote my Twitter account by purchasing occasional ad runs from the service. Because of Twitter’s unique ability to target users based on content, the ads seemed to work pretty well and, for good while, there was never any hint of an issue.
Then, quite suddenly and without any warning, they revoked my account’s ability to run ads. At first I thought it was just some sort of mistake and made an inquiry through their poorly-named “help” function. That turned out not to be the case, and I was eventually informed that one of our ads had violated their terms of service, though, inexplicably, the automated email I received did not specify which piece of content allegedly caused the “violation,” or even exactly which rule had supposedly been broken.
Instead, this is what some computer at Twitter sent me:
”Thanks for your question about the status of your Twitter Ads Account. We’ve reviewed your Account and confirmed that it is ineligible to participate in the Twitter Ads program at this time based on our Hateful Content policy. Violating content includes, but is not limited to, that which is hate speech or advocacy against a protected group. Please remove the image on their bio url page which advocates against an individual based on their race. If the violating content has been removed, please respond and we will re-review your Account for policy compliance.”
Not only did this clearly robot-generated correspondence not relieve me of my extreme confusion over what the heck I could have even theoretically have done “wrong,” it actually heightened my state of utter bafflement. The only line there which comes close to trying to help me fix the conflict is the fourth sentence, which read: “Please remove the image on their bio url page which advocates against an individual based on their race.”
The first sign of a completely unsatisfactory response was that it refers to “their bio url,” which I assumed, despite the massive syntax error, to mean the “bio url” belonging to my account. But there is nothing on my Twitter bio page which does anything of the sort. The only images on my bio page are a photo of me on television and a letter, meant for the purposes of irony, from Donald Trump praising me for my defense of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.
At a total loss for what to do next, I responded to the email with a question about which specific content they determined to be “violating.” About a day or two later I got two messages, sent at exactly the same time, with exactly the same verbiage as the original email.
My blood boiling, I then made another general inquiry via their “help” center and got no response. I then responded to a later email from Twitter asking me how “satisfied” I was with how they handled my question. While telling them I was “extremely dissatisfied,” I was given the opportunity to send them a message which they promised, quite hilariously, would be read by an actual human being.
Of course, I never received a response.
Resigned to having been shut out by the Orwellian “Big Brother” that Twitter has become, I pretty much forgot about this absurdity until recently when I saw that Twitter was offering what seems like an interesting new way to promote your account. Mostly out of curiosity, I once again went through the sign up process, got rejected, asked why, and got the same infuriating response as before (how are you supposed to remove “violating content” when no one will actually tell you what it is?!).
Now, maybe if I was important, like say Alex Jones, I could get some answers about what is going on (I’m convinced that one of the flaws in Twitter’s system is that controversial people provoke more official complaints, which their detractors now rightly see as an effective political weapon), but I’m not. But still, as a “validated” account with over 30,000 legitimate followers you would think I could at least get email communication with a human being.
But this isn’t just a personal story. This happens to conservatives (and others) on Twitter all the time. It’s also commonplace to see people complain about Facebook or Youtube citing mysterious rules violations, offering no explanation, and certainly no way to contact any human being at the company about it.
It is bad enough that the future of free speech in this country is bleak and based on rules which increasingly restrict what we can say on legitimate media outlets. But where we should all draw the line is having the decisions about what is unacceptable being made by computers, vague emails, or simply no explanation at all, without our knowing how or why our speech was deemed unacceptable, and with no viable way of even getting a remotely reasonable explanation.
Twitter is self-evidently important to political speech in the United States. What is not remotely evident is any semblance of responsible, transparent, accountable management of that power.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issuesand is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at [email protected]
[Featured image via screengrab]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.