Last Friday Maggie Haberman, a New York Times reporter who has covered Donald Trump since 2016, announced via an op-ed that she was heavily cutting down on her Twitter usage.
“Twitter has stopped being a place where I could learn things I didn’t know,” wrote Haberman, adding, “The viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism are at all-time highs, with no end in sight…Twitter is now an anger video game for many users.”
Many media professionals with whom this reporter has spoken feel the same way. Twitter’s news element – exciting, immediate and self-correcting – has given way to a vortex of hate and bipartisanship. And the medium’s 280-character limit doesn’t just aid brevity: it aids a discourse that is watered-down and unable to bridge ideological divides. It is stratifying people.
Twitter knows this. On Saturday CEO Jack Dorsey declared via the platform that his team needs “to focus more on the conversational dynamics within Twitter. We haven’t paid enough consistent attention here. Better organization, more context, helping to identify credibility, ease of use.”
But does simply shielding users from a torrent of abuse solve the problem? Dorsey and co have made strides in eliminating bots from Twitter. But the core issue remains: Twitter is no Athenian Ecclesia. It is a dopamine chamber, where instant gratification far outweighs robust debate.
Enter Mike Cernovich, a self-proclaimed journalist who could more accurately be described as an alt-right agitator. His trawling of old tweets, and mobilization of an army of likeminded trolls, has terrorized journalists he deems responsible for his own personal failings.
Cernovich, whose main claim to fame is the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy and an anti-feminism, pro-rape online soapbox, uses Twitter’s drawbacks to throw scorn on the “liberal media”. He games the system. Likewise neo-Nazis like Andrew Anglin, who’ve parlayed the confused, free-speech missions of social media to abuse and endanger people worldwide.
Last week it emerged Google and Apple profited from Pizzagate, a connivance so mad we will not explain it here. Qanon, a wider, more vaudevillian conspiracy involving the Democratic Party, Air Force One and North Korea, was pushed by the QDrops app. It was only removed from Google Play and the App Store after enquiries by NBC News – showing how slow Big Tech moves against troublesome material.
When will social media platforms wake up to the fact that they are conductors of hate speech in the legal sense, rather than some opinionated version thereof? Mark Zuckerberg said he would not remove Holocaust denial from Facebook, despite its illegality in many states.
In Europe hate speech is dealt with more simply: authorities throw a book at offenders. That may chafe with American ideas of free speech. But advocating rape, racism, personal attacks and another Holocaust are crimes of incitement. Whether guided by confused ideas of free speech, or dollars, social media’s leaders are part of the problem.