What the hell took so long?
That’s the question that kept running through my head this week as Twitter:
1. Appended a fact check to a tweet from President Donald Trump alleging that mail-in balloting was a Democratic scheme to rig the 2020 election.
2. Posted a warning on a second Trump tweet on the unrest in Minnesota that the social media giant said “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”
Even before the second incident, Trump leapt into action, issuing an executive order aimed at curtailing social media companies’ ability to wade into debates over fact and truth. (It’s not entirely clear how much legal latitude Trump has to actually do what he wants to with the order.)
But all of that back-and-forth between Trump and Twitter overlooks the broader (and more important) question of why Trump has been allowed to push any number of demonstrably false statements via Twitter (and Facebook) without ever once being punished for doing so.
As recently as this week, Trump continued to suggest – with no factual evidence – that former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Florida) had somehow been involved in the death of a female staffer in his district office in 2001.
Despite Trump’s assertion that it was a “cold case,” the medical examiner at the time determined it to be an accident caused by an undiagnosed heart condition.
Did Twitter take any of Trump’s tweets on Scarborough down or add a fact check to them? It did not. (Not even when the widower of the woman personally asked Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to do so.)
Did Twitter take down or append a fact check to Trump’s late 2016 tweet in which he claimed, with zero proof, that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in the presidential election? Or when Trump tweeted, without proof and with facts demonstrating the opposite, that President Barack Obama had ordered his phone tapped at Trump Tower during the election?
In each case, it did not. Nor did it act in any way, shape or form on the multitude of falsehoods Trump has pushed to his millions of followers (80-plus million now) during his 2016 campaign and presidency.
The truth that tends to get lost here is just how lawless – and therefore dangerous – these social media giants actually are. As The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel put it earlier this week:
“My feeling on these platforms is that they’re failed states, mostly. Architecture/reach for scale feel like the prob[lem]. Which requires massive overhaul, not margins tinkering. So it’s difficult to have a clear critique of potential solutions when [you] just think we’d be better off [without]”
These platforms were built without any sense of the influence they could exert. They were about, initially, connecting people and making money – not necessarily in that order. The founders of these companies had little interest in the ways in which their platforms would be used and abused by people in power.
And now, when they may be starting to realize what they’ve done, even they can’t control their own creation.
The Point: “Failed states” indeed. Don’t assume Twitter or Facebook will somehow save the idea of truth and fact. They can’t. And won’t.