Twitter may be looking to burnish its battered image by starting to flag President Trump’s tweets when they are clearly at variance with the truth, but we shouldn’t forget: This is a platform that has shown little social responsibility in the past, and we’d be fools for thinking it’s going to start now.
Twitter has always been about what is good for Twitter, and its most adept users have likewise been exploiting the platform for years to do what is good for them, whether that’s at the expense of the public interest or not.
If you think Donald Trump has been the only one to spread lies and reap the benefit, think again. In 2011, right around the time Trump was using Twitter to launch the “birther” movement and cast doubt on Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, the rapper 50 Cent was using the platform – and abusing his own celebrity – to boost the value of a little known stock and clear an $8-million profit for himself in two days.
The move was brazen enough that the Securities and Exchange Commission was soon on 50 Cent’s trail and had the gangsta rapper deleting tweets, apologizing for not disclosing risks and working hard to avoid criminal charges. But the scandal was focused almost entirely on what 50 Cent had or had not done — not on Twitter itself. And Twitter was very much part of the problem, as it has remained ever since.
It’s now almost 10 years later, and we sadly still expect more from our average citizens and even celebrities on Twitter than we do from the actual platform itself.
While Twitter and other social networks have grown into giant monopolies, they have yet to be forced into taking responsibility for their known public security problems. Instead, these venture-backed companies continue to focus on simply maximizing profits no matter how bad their platforms erode humanity.
These platforms publicly cry that they fall under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, legislation put in place before social networking was even a concept and accessing the internet required a dial-up modem. This tiny section of law currently shields social media companies, allowing them to take little to no responsibility for any content on their platform, claiming that they are only the neutral pipeline.
Unfortunately, this outdated argument has become a political football. Silicon Valley has quietly strengthened their archaic 1996 protections, successfully sneaking this legal shield into the recent bipartisan U.S.-Mexico trade agreement.
Don’t be fooled by press releases and announcements from Facebook and Twitter about how much they are cleaning up their platforms. Both are masters of rolling out minor fixes, taking down a post here and there, banning a user, or flagging a tweet to provide some cover and keep them out of additional congressional investigations.
Twitter’s ban last November on political advertising, a move that earned them praise from members of Congress, did nothing to address their real problems of bullying bots that spew fake news on their own platform. And Facebook has made similar toothless announcements that brag about hiring actual fact-checkers and additional scrutiny for political advertising.
Let’s not conflate appeasement for actual progress.
After years of doing nothing, Twitter finally flagged Donald Trump’s account this week. I have little faith in a company that continues to make exceptions to its own terms of service, exempting its highest traffic generators without any consequences. Until that change happens, I will remain doubtful that this minor flag to Trump’s account is any indicator of a more responsible Silicon Valley.
Twitter flagging Trump’s tweet is a brilliant distraction from the bigger story of the week, showing that they once again have done truly nothing to fix the massive army of bullying bots. According to Carnegie Mellon, half of more than 200 million tweets calling for America to quickly re-open during the coronavirus were found to be from fake accounts.
I would like a leader who doesn’t use social media to push experimental drugs to the general public without any proof that they are effective, make false accusations against journalists that challenge their leadership or scare entire areas of the country into thinking that a natural disaster is heading directly towards their homes. But we also need companies to take responsibility for providing a platform that benefits from such lies.
Flagging one tweet is not enough. 50 Cent was just the warning of what was to come. If Twitter and Facebook continue to ignore the issues on their own platforms, then Congress needs to close all shield law loopholes so that social networks will finally become legally accountable.