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Headquartered deep in the heart of the tenderloin district of San Francisco CA, Jack Dorsey’s Twitter Inc has set off a firestorm threatening to invoke the wrath of 47 U.S.C. Section 230, the law that protects Internet platforms from being sued for the content placed there by their users.
Dorsey and his team made the decision to curate tweets made on the account of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, known on the internet by its identifier, @realdonaldtrump. Twitter subjected the President to fact checking implying, by their corporate action, that the tweets may be misleading.
The response was predictable. The President considered Twitter’s actions to be actively curating the content of their offering and asked the Justice Department to look into whether the platform immunity protections of Twitter should be stripped, the company declared to be a content publisher, and subjected to liability for all content appearing on the service.
Implications for the Platform Industry
The loss of platform immunity has massive implications for how Americans experience the information age. We are presently use to a social media participation model where we expect to be able to say anything we want, with negligible consequence, in virtual isolation, anonymously. All this changes if the platforms disappear.
Designation as a publisher puts these businesses in direct competition with the publishing industry, which includes the mainstream media. The media does curate and control all content on its systems precisely because they do not have platform immunity.
A platform being declared a publisher can no longer be an unfettered outlet for individual expression. No legal department would sign of on a model where uncontrolled users using the service for free can create a potential liability for which the company is financially responsible. It basically kills the business model of creating an accessible high engagement, unconstrained subject matter, discussion environment from which behavioral data mining and targeted advertising can be commercially monetized across millions, if not billions, of eyeballs in exchange for a terms of service agreement that authorizes permission to give up an enumerated list of privacy rights. It is a business model worth billions of dollars per year.
This ability of platforms to create what academics refer to as a “surveillance economy” has been the subject of lament by leading academics for some time. In 1997, Kevin Werbach authored a book titled “Digital Tornado: The Internet and telecommunications Policy” that argued for an unfettered internet free of regulatory constraints so it would be able to explore any form of exploitation of the then newly named “information superhighway”.
In November 2017, Werbach assembled academic elites at the Wharton School to discuss the world that policy had created in a weekend conference called “After the Digital Tornado”. I attended that conference and witnessed a series of speakers call for the downfall of social media companies by name. These included calls to take down Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon, and their perceived monopoly advantages in big data mining, by any means necessary. Social media was given a new and ominous name, “The Big Other”.
These were elite, influential, and very liberal academics with the clout to influence political and regulatory events. How powerful? Six months later in April of 2018, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg delivered his first testimony to Congress.
By 2019, every social media company was scrambling to appease the content police at the expense of their platform’s legal obligation to conform to 47 U.S.C. Sec. 230 to enable information exchange between users.
I can still remember one presenter’s passionate statement, “We were wrong in ’97. We need to burn the internet down and start again, this time with federal controls on these companies.” I assume he meant a regulated utilities model.
But I remember thinking to myself, that sounds a little like what they are doing in China where the powers that be get to do all the data mining not for a “surveillance economy”, but for a “surveillance state”.
And that is what some fear may happen to these platform companies. They are a convertible infrastructure to be absorbed into a future American version of the Chinese “social scoring” system.
This is not an invalid concern.
Implications for Twitter
I find it very ironic that the man that brought home the bacon to pierce the platform/publisher veil for the liberal elites at that 2017 conference at Wharton is none other than President Donald J. Trump. Some of the conference speakers openly loathed the man viscerally, even more than they disdained the internet companies.
I also wonder how Jack Dorsey feels about being the guy that drew the lighting strike that the Digital Tornado theorists wanted to fry Mark Zuckerberg with.
But here we are.
We are about to see if Twitter’s efforts at content curation, driven by academic theorists that have a problem with the company’s data mining capability, craters the firm under regulatory enforcement pressure.
And the sad part is that it was not even Twitter’s innovation at solving technology problems that’s gotten them into trouble. No. They tried to adopt “fact checking”, as notoriously unreliable and subjective form of audience confidence building, onto their platform. The problem is that “fact checking” is fractal. What is or is not a fact depends on your point of view about the item you are checking, particularly when it comes to political opinion, which is an entirely artificial set of manmade ideas in the first place.
You are going to step on your feet and fall on your face into a vat of boiling water. You’ll die like a lobster, every time.
Dorsey has the smallest team of all the American social media platforms with around 4,600 employees. They are a tight team with aligned socio-cultural values based in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in the United States of America. Any corporate strategist will tell you that an insular corporate culture attempting to navigate curating the content of a globally deployed user base platform is the one place where you can never let that culture get the better of your business decisions.
Last week, that team crossed a line in the sand and created a business vulnerability that could wipe out everything they have accomplished to date.
Here’s the thing. Would anyone care?
Could the Industry Sacrifice Twitter?
In comparison, Facebook has 45,000 employees, Google has 118,000 employees, and Amazon has an estimated 840,000 employees, double that of either UPS at 481,000 employees or Federal Express at 400,000 employees. Similar Chinese firms like Alibaba have 102,000 employees and even coronavirus lockdown phenomenon ByteDance, which owns TikTok, plans to have around 100,000 employees.
What Twitter is, because of the roll it plays of being the focal point of America’s political expressions of hate your neighbor, is what lawyers would call an “attractive nuisance”.
Social media companies serving the US market have been struggling with “political” content infestation since 2015 when the lighthearted banter of social media services, just beginning to explore monetization, were hijacked by tech savvy operatives of the political apparatus to engage in battles for political influence of a still mostly naïve and trusting audience.
The platforms were slow to adapt to this appropriation of their offerings. Within the ranks of these firms, few rules were written to maintain adequate internal controls to prevent platforms from becoming unwilling pawns in what old timers refer to as “flame wars” between parties of differing opinions.
Political fighting is special in America. It comes with 1st Amendment protections that make it difficult for platform operators to assert corporate privileges.
The main problem with Twitter is its technical design around the mighty soundbite. Its short message format amplifies the kind of declarative and judgmental statement making that triggers human emotions. There is little room for the nuance of civility in the Twitter format. It was, from an asymmetric vulnerability standpoint, wide open for future political exploitation from the day it was born.
It is hard to make someone smile on Twitter. It is kind of a cesspool of judgment. You could wish your closest friends a happy anniversary and come back an hour later to find trolls accusing you of exercising intersectional racism by promoting onerous white privilege cisgender value systems. It is just that kind of a weird place.
The actual industry question here is, does anyone really need Twitter at all?
What if Trump Abandons Twitter?
Whether or not the Justice Department ever gets involved in the Platform vs. Publisher issue, I think Twitter needs Trump more than Trump needs Twitter. Indulge my logic for a minute.
Let’s say @realdonaldtrump leaves Twitter. Whatever platform he goes to will become the platform that everyone will go to. It just is. He’s the President of the United States. And I do mean everyone because there really is a “Trump Train”.
Everyone who likes Donald Trump will abandon Twitter and go to his new platform in a heartbeat; and probably make great sport of saying they have deleted their Twitter accounts, never to return.
All of Trump’s political enemies will also establish a presence on that platform because, in politics, you keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. The rules of cloak and dagger do not change, ever.
World and domestics leaders will follow Trump to his new platform because, face it, they are a fraternity and you want to belong to the best one on campus. Cool kids only go to cool places.
Every news agency that covers politics will also follow Trump to the next watering hole; because, it’s their job to follow where the “original source” of the news cycle comes from. And if the new platform is where the audiences are to fight for market share, they will focus their people on winning on this platform and you will see their efforts on Twitter atrophy, just as they have every other platforms that was past its prime, every time. You have to go where the action is baby!
Every activist with a message to push will follow as well. You must be close to the center of the virtual universe if you want your message to be heard.
And every advertiser that targets those market segments will reallocate their budgets to wherever the eyeballs are. Come on man, this is just business.
And what will be left on Twitter after the political rugby pile that began in 2015 leaves? Not a lot worth visiting.
If I were Jack Dorsey, the question I’d really be asking myself is, How long those people I just told can work from home permanently after the Coronavirus Pandemic is over will be on the payroll?
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