Twitter’s PR problem is humanity’s PR problem

Twitter has been getting a bad rap recently. In response, it has said it will be taking a more aggressive stance against abuse on its platform, as well as a crackdown on hateful images and pornography.

Now I remember first writing about this particular social network when working on the news desk of a tech magazine back in the mid noughties. Gleefully describing it as a ‘micro-blogging service’ (and probably equally gleefully contending that it would never catch on, something I also said about the iPhone), could I – or anyone else – have predicted what a hell site it would turn into?

It was a place where everyone had a voice and ordinary people could interact with celebrities. A level playing field, if you will. But over the years, it has spiralled out of control into one big slanging match. Brand reputations are under attack from angry customers. Journalists are criticised for what they report. Politicians are scorned for expressing their views. Rabid tribes of opinionated chumps itch for a fight. Ordinary people get sucked in and waste hours arguing with contrarians. Somewhere among all this, a few valuable tweets reside – but it seems that they become fewer by the day.

We can’t pretend that Twitter is a digital democracy. It isn’t and never was. It’s become the kind of platform where it is all too easy to be a bully and espouse what could be termed “aggressive ignorance”, with celebrity trolls – and ordinary ones too – knowing that they can start a fire and walk away relatively scot-free. Some people just want to watch the world burn, after all.

And then we have the shady elements that abuse the platform (and other social media platforms too, to be fair) to try and influence elections. It’s the wild west, and Twitter itself is fighting a losing battle to try and tame it.

Of course, we have to shut down the eggs, trolls and bots. So Twitter’s moves to cut down on abuse are welcome. But forgive us our cynicism – in the past, rules that intended to fight the trolls have often been applied to people who actually make Twitter a better place.

These rules seem to only be selectively applied. When POTUS, for example, tweets threats of nuclear annihilation to an entire nation, it’s totally fine, seemingly. Yet Rose Mcgowan – who, let us not forget, has used the platform to take a brave and principled stand to denounce unacceptable, criminal behaviour, despite having to put up with a predictable barrage of abuse for doing so – gets suspended from Twitter. Whatever the official reason for having done so, Twitter has made a massive slip-up from a PR perspective – choosing to further victimise someone who is already a victim, when countless other instances of similar offences being committed (and even reported) go unpunished.

And when it comes to Twitter’s image problems, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In a world where hate crime is on the rise, many racist groups are bombarding the network with hate speech, to the point where the repellent language of these maniacs is becoming normalised. The kind of thing that would shock you to your very core if you heard it in the real world is run-of-the-mill everyday language on Twitter. And while the worst offenders are always quick to claim their right to free speech, Twitter finds itself in the firing line for hosting and helping to spread these abhorrent views.

Of course, Twitter can’t vet every single thing that is posted on the platform – it simply doesn’t have the manpower. If there is anyone out there who is working on AI algorithms to detect hate speech, then Twitter would be the ideal place for them to learn. Ditto AI algorithms to detect fake news. (Though maybe Twitter isn’t the best place for AI.)

So Twitter is in a difficult position. For too long, though, it has been guilty of prioritising new features and UI over actually trying to stop the abuse. Increased character limits, for example. What it should be doing (and it seems to have realised this to a degree), is to recognise that fighting abuse on the platform is an ongoing battle and that it needs to be seen to be constantly updating, refining and bolstering its policies to this end.

CEO Jack Dorsey said: “We need to be a lot more transparent in our actions in order to build trust.” Actually, much more than that is required. It needs to be not just part of the battle against hate speech, but actually leading the battle. It needs to be exposing those who spread hate, involved in prosecuting the bad guys and championing the persecuted every single day.

Twitter is far from being a perfect platform, but of course it does have its good sides too. If nothing else, it’s a place where the humble, brilliant Neville Southall can find people to help him learn about sexual orientation and terms such as ‘cisgender’ and generally be a good bloke, champion of the common person. It is also a great place for getting up to speed with current affairs, connecting with people with similar interests and making friends.

But whatever way we slice it, Twitter is a place where there will still be plenty of morons eager to shout ‘SJW!’ ‘Libtard!’ and the like at anyone they disagree with, no matter what new rules Twitter brings in. Emboldened by their keyboard, protected by their screen, people can do exactly the kind of thing they would never dream of doing in a real-world situation. Our worst tendencies come to the fore when the process of typing and posting a message is so quick and easy, so far removed from normal human interaction that it all seems like a game.

And anyone who claims that Twitter is a place where reasoned debate can take place is deluded. For every example they might be able to find of a balanced, polite, let’s agree to disagree-type exchange, I could find you a million examples of tantrum-led name-calling ad hominem attacks, where Godwin’s law is invoked in record time. The format – whether you have 140 or 280 characters – is not suitable for constructive argument. Too much nuance is lost by the need for brevity.

That’s the really bad thing about Twitter. It’s actually a stark reflection of humanity and it makes us look very bad indeed. People hide behind a veil of anonymity and bombard others with abuse. Normally sensible people send knee-jerk messages before they have thought about the consequences. Professional contrarians air their bad opinions. Former reality TV stars spread hatred. White supremacists continue to push their abhorrent ideas. Power-mad, egotistical tyrants threaten to kill millions of people.

This is who we are. We are bad. We use Twitter. Therefore Twitter is bad. It’s not Twitter’s problem – it’s humanity’s problem. Ultimately, whatever Twitter tries to do about abuse on its platform, it’s not going to be able to stop our worst collective traits from coming to the fore.

Ben Camm-Jones

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