Taking apart Social Media Morality: Twitter’s Feud with Trump
“You can’t stop other people from reading that with you disagree with.” — Pierre Rochard on Noded 0.62.0
Note: I originally published this on Medium but I am posting here to give you an idea of the type of newsletters to expect from Tanvir Talks!
This is the opening quote of Paul Miller’s CyberDeck Users Weekly podcast episode called ‘Facts’ (yes I am quoting someone who is quoting someone else). Paul goes on to discuss what he believes is censorship and the philosophy behind it. The episode is a great listen if you’re into this stuff and I would highly recommend it.
As you might be aware, what feels like years ago but was only less than a month ago, Twitter decided to ‘fact check’ Donald Trump for the first time recently. This has, as expected, divided people on whether this should be allowed, even amongst other tech giants. As an avid Twitter user, I’m very aware of the confusing/double standards Twitter has for what they decide to keep up and what they decide to take down. How and why have Twitter allowed terrorist organisations to operate through their platform? Before I breakdown Twitter’s response to Trump, we need to take a little journey behind the thought process behind censorship.
The Dumb ‘Other’
What is censorship? That’s a debate in its own right, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to baseline the definition that I personally go by:
Censorship is the act of supressing or prohibiting thought or commentary in any shape or form to match the moral standards of the individual or organisation that is performing the act of censoring.
I bring up Paul’s podcast episode at the start as he made an interesting point in his episode. In it, he mentions the ‘Dumb Other’. When someone wants to censor something, they are very rarely doing it for themselves. It’s normally the mindset of ‘This thing should be censored — not because I am affected by it, but it’s the other people who are not as intelligent as myself who use this platform that need to be shielded from this so that they don’t believe/are influenced by this.’ But what an individual is essentially saying in this situation is that ‘This doesn’t agree with my moral standards and I don’t want others to be influenced by these immoral thoughts’. One is imposing their moral beliefs onto everyone else around them.
We all have moral assumptions that we struggle to break away from
Being a programmer and making games as a hobby, I learnt very quickly how many assumptions about the real-world behaviours we have. My first ever hurdle I came across when making a game was not programming gravity. During my thought process of programming, the force of gravity was such an assumed characteristic that it didn’t even occur to me that I will need to tell the computer to enforce it.
When it comes to morality, we all have assumptions that we struggle to break away from. The first time I felt my assumed morality questioned was when I was reading ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang. In the first chapter called “There is no such thing as a free market”, he says:
“…until the late 19th Century or early 20th Century when the first serious child labour regulations were introduced into Europe, many respectable people judged child labour regulation to be against the principles of the free market…If you believe that the right of children not to have to work is more important that the right of factory owners to be able to hire whoever they find most profitable, you will not see a ban on child labour as an infringement on the freedom of the labour market. If you believe the opposite, you will see an ‘unfree’ market, shackled by a misguided government regulation”.
This concept blew my mind. To me it was so blindingly obvious that child labour is bad — they’re a child! To think that people opposed child labour laws was something I struggled to understand — the similar sentiment I feel towards climate change deniers trying to stop green energy laws.
When we are angry at social media for not censoring/removing a post or a user, we are assuming that the social media organisation should uphold the same moral values as ourselves, as that is obviously the correct moral to have and, we are frustrated when they don’t act accordingly. As by leaving the post up the social media organisation is implicitly agreeing with the user or post — they don’t believe there is anything wrong with the morality of the post and are promulgating (thank you Paul for teaching me this word) the ideology.
But what is morality?
Up until now I have talked about morality and how it is at the root cause of many people’s frustration with censorship. But what actually is it?
This is something that people can spend their whole lives debating, and you are definitely not getting an answer to that question here. I am not a philosophy major, I’ve never taken any formal class in philosophy, so I can only discuss the topic in a very high-level sense. But let's start with the question, ‘When you are making a moral judgement, what are you doing?’
There are many answers to that question, but I want to baseline what I feel most people do when they react to a social media post and demand it be taken down/kept up.
Emotivism: Moral judgements are neither objectively true or false or relatively true/false. They’re direct expressions of our emotive reactions.
For example, if you say ‘Polygamy is morally wrong’ you are expressing your emotions and feelings towards polygamy.
Relativism: Our moral judgements are indeed something that can be true or false, but they’re only true or false relative to something that can vary between people.
For example, if you say ‘Polygamy is morally wrong’ you are saying that relative to the people and culture around you, polygamy is wrong, however there are some cultures/a point in time where Polygamy is not dubious.
Utilitarianism: the doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct
For example, if you say ‘Polygamy is morally wrong’, you are expressing that for the greater happiness of your society and those around you, polygamy should not be considered morally right.
How you justify each of those claims are up to you, but essentially, when you or I react to any social media post it’s probably a combination of the three definitions outlined above (and many more).
You can argue that social media platforms are private companies and therefore have the right to monitor, censor or regulate whatever they want on their site. I guess they do, but especially with how world leaders and members of political parties are using social media, you could consider them to be on their way to being considered as public forums. With social media platforms being international, they’re becoming public forums of the world. So how do you, as a company, decide what is morally correct? You have the job of trying to avoid emotions clouding your judgement and the whole world is your relative society. You are trying to make a judgement that is for the greater happiness of the world.
Now at this point you might be thinking of many, many situations when a world leader or prominent figure government/society or even terrorist groups have tweeted something that has led to a negative impact, in that situation the answer is obvious right?
Social media policy teams need to act practically
Twitter themselves (like all the social media sites) have outlined what they deem to be acceptable and not acceptable. They essentially have decided what they think is morally right and wrong on their site, and should you tweet/promote/share any of those ideologies or themes they have the right to take down your post. Going through these rules you might be agreeing with them. But according to these rules, why didn’t they/don’t they shut down terrorist organisations like ISIS, or more recently, take down Donald Trump’s tweet?
Twitter has long advocated for being the platform of freedom of expression. They don’t want to be the people who regulate what is acceptable and don’t want to succumb to the pressure of state intervention. Twitter do take down accounts related to terrorism on a regular basis, but clearly don’t do enough. The problem with these terrorist organisation accounts is that they might not directly or explicitly promote violence or extremism so according to Twitter policy it’s compliant. You can consistently denounce a group of individuals and their beliefs and persuade people to adopt your ideology as long as you aren’t explicitly telling people to break any one of Twitter’s rules, but even if you do, they don’t care if they deem you’re important enough.
I’m not here to defend Twitter — I’m shining the light on part of the thought process social media companies go through when a decision is made to keep a post/account up or take it down.
So back to recent events: Why did Twitter decide to fact check the President?
Given Twitter’s history of reluctancy to act, this decision is a real milestone in the change of behaviour — especially as it’s against one of their most prominent users. The official reason Twitter decided to fact check twitter is because the tweets “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labelled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”
Twitter has decided that lying about how mail voting leads to voter fraud and tampering was the line crossed for them, or first line; it will be interesting to see what other fact checks they carry out, I’m already seeing people experimenting with (and maybe leading to people abusing) the 5G fact checking.
The in-mail voting fact checking is probably, like the 5G one, is an automatic programmed flag. The more interesting one is the tweet that is flagged as inciting violence but Twitter decided to keep up for the public interest. Up until now, Trump (along with many other users) has gotten away with violating Twitter’s rules. Leaving this tweet ‘for the public interest’ raises a few questions — who decides what’s best for the public interest? How do you define someone that is a person of public interest? At the moment it is limited to politicians, but what if a ‘verified’ individual decides to incite violence which picks up political momentum? What about a situation where a random Twitter user with not much of a following tweets a tweet inciting violence (or promoting something similar) and it goes viral? Is it still of a public interest?
These are all ‘answered’ questions as of now, as Twitter has outlined their public interest policy. It’s important that people are constantly questioning Twitter’s (and all social media) moral decisions. Each move should be scrutinised accordingly as — even though their morality might match yours today, it doesn’t mean it will match yours tomorrow. Society changes every day, with people opposing mainstream ideas at the time being classed as terrorism. Twitter is deciding who they think are of public interest — they’re imposing their morality onto the users on the platform (something they have the right to). They have outlined their process and what they believe is public interest and what isn’t, and you might agree, as currently their moral decisions might be aligning with yours. Big social and political changes don’t always come from politicians, so how Twitter manages those prominent figures going forward will be crucial to not alienating Twitter’s userbase. They’ve set a precedent, let’s see if they can uphold this equally.