Twitter walked headlong into a hail of rubber bullets last week, when it chose to “fact-check” two of President Trump’s tweets. The ensuing furore over censorship and free speech drew in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who took a contrary stance to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Private platforms “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth,” he declared, and promptly drew ire—not just from civil rights campaigners, but from his own employees.
But both founders could suffer if sweeping new laws are introduced, championed by a president whose style of communication is as deadly as a plane crash. The battle has, rightly, been denigrated to a sideshow amidst the heart-stopping scenes on our streets. Nevertheless, a war looms over the limits of free speech, and the right of social media firms to moderate user content.
The opponents in this war have taken two very different approaches, as a result of the personal styles of Dorsey and Zuckerberg. At stake is the future of social media, the evolution of decentralized technologies and perhaps even the shape of the Internet itself.
Jack Dorsey: A worthy champion for decentralization
On Thursday, Twitter chose to double down on its policies, which were first announced last year, but had never been used against Trump before. The social media platform hid a Trump tweet for “glorifying violence.” The president had tweeted that he would “send in the National Guard,” adding the mantra: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
“This is the bravest and riskiest thing I’ve ever seen Twitter—or any social media giant—do,” Carl Miller, from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at UK-based think-tank Demos, told the BBC.
But the next stage of the battle will be the true test of Dorsey—a Bitcoin-loving human rights advocate, and free-thinking Yoga fanatic. Twitter’s policy of fact-checking tweets has not gone down well with everyone. A more robust approach is needed.
Dorsey’s championed Bitcoin development, and claims he would make a decentralized Twitter, a social media platform that no one entity controls, in a heartbeat—if only the tech was 100% ready.
But progress is slow, and the project is in its very early stages. In December, Dorsey announced the formation of a team of “open source architects, engineers, and designers” to help develop the future of decentralized social media. “The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard,” he wrote at the time. And there has been no update since.
Mark Zuckerberg: The hero the world deserves?
A very different character from Dorsey, Zuckerberg’s big terrifying dream is a Facebook that rules the airwaves, as the communication backbone for the Western world. The boy wonder has form in the political arena; he’s respectfully defended, before walls of regulators, Facebook’s policies on user privacy, its covert data harvesting, and its plans to introduce its new cryptocurrency, Libra—it’s Zuckerberg’s route to introducing payments across all Facebook’s platforms.
In many ways, the antithesis of Bitcoin, Libra will be a permissioned blockchain, governed by the Libra Association, which is controlled by Association affiliates. Bitcoin, by contrast, is permissionless and much more decentralized.
Zuckerberg’s plans don’t end there. He sees a future of virtual reality, where digital information is projected, and supplements our view of the real world. In such a scenario, certain parts could be highlighted or occluded, altering what is visible, editing what exists; prioritizing and reframing content. Such a pervasive artificial reality would be scary and unfathomable, but nothing surprising for the writers of Black Mirror.
Zuckerberg has argued that Facebook has a policy to allow warnings of the use of force by state actors. He intervened personally to leave Trump’s controversial post unadulterated on Facebook. The decision led to a “virtual walkout“ by Facebook staff on Monday, and similar protests on the company’s other platforms.
His approach to fact-checking has been criticized by the heads of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Color of Change. Zuckerberg, they say, refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters.
The Trump storm is not the first time Facebook’s non-interventionist policies have been held up, and found wanting. In December, terrifying rumors emerged on the platform that, in the US, men driving white vans were kidnapping women for sex trafficking and body parts. There was no evidence to suggest the posts were true, yet Facebook’s algorithms pushed them to the top of users’ feeds, and the mayor of one American city was forced to issue a warning about the unsubstantiated claims.
Polarized and politicized
Like its founders then, Twitter and Facebook are polarized and politicised. But is it the job of our giant social media corporations to tell the public what’s fact or fiction?
Opinion is divided. Perhaps Dorsey felt he could rely on Cameron Winklevoss to agree with him. The co-founder of the Gemini crypto exchange is a Zuckerberg nemeses, but last week he sided with Zuckerberg, tweeting, “Fact checking” is a euphemism for editorializing which is a form of censorship. And that’s a fact.”
Support came instead from Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin, who said, “Fact checking is like adding warning labels. Censorship is like banning things. Given that pro-freedom people have been pushing the former as an alternative to the latter for decades, I’d say we should give people trying to actually implement the former some slack.”
But will the threat from Trump galvanise Dorsey’s ambitions to create a decentralized platform, free from external influence? On Thursday, he restated his ambition.
He got plenty of support, but respondents also emphasized the difficulty of what is being proposed, and the necessity for human fact-checkers to supplement such an approach. The problem, isn’t the technology, wrote, Buzz Andersen, a tech
veteran who’s worked at Apple, Square and Tumblr. The very subjective issue is what is right, and who gets to decide:
“Who gets to control the content of the “oracles?” Who creates the “extraction” technology and what implicit biases will it contain? How will it be gamed? You can’t elide [sic] fundamental issues of epistemology by hiding them under layers of machine learning pixie dust,” he tweeted.
So, right now, try as they might, social media platforms can’t stem the tide of disinformation sweeping the Internet. Will President Trump go down in history as the catalyst for their next evolution? It’s early days, and a robust, decentralized approach to social media doesn’t exist yet (and perhaps never will), but a Zuckerberg style future is too awful to contemplate.