Article in Tech Industry category.
Burn After Tweeting: Social Media and Freedom of Speech
Twitter is not what we thought it was. We believed it to be a force of good in the world, a service that, by channeling…
Twitter is not what we thought it was. We believed it to be a force of good in the world, a service that, by channeling freedom of speech, could change the world we lived in. We all witnessed Twitter’s role in Arab Spring of 2010. Twitter even put off a critical server upgrade so that the service would not be interrupted during the 2009 Iran uprising (albeit at the request of the US Department of State). Back then, as real, meaningful changes were happening in the world, the freedom allowed by Twitter was one of many catalysts.
This might sound eye-rollingly lofty, but it’s true. The same service that enabled rapper Wiz Khalifa to ponder the mysteries of the universe to an audience of millions helped organize an enormous political movement. Tweets are an easy and effective way to spread a message, whether it be the location of a mutinous political rally or a vitriolic critique of NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games. Actually, wait — I might have gone too far with that last bit.
To recap: Twitter partnered up with NBC to cover the 2012 Olympics. The two businesses did not exchange any money as part of the deal, but it’s rather easy to see that the partnership benefits both financially. The partnership is especially vital for Twitter, as the company seeks a larger and more widespread audience in order to establish itself as a lucrative business. Twitter encourages users to watch the Olympic games, NBC force feeds viewers content involving Twitter — everyone wins. On July 30th, Twitter suspended LA-based journalist Guy Adams’ Twitter account after he posted the publicly available email address of an NBC executive. Twitter incorrectly found the Tweet to be a violation of their private information policy.
It’s fairly obvious that free speech can be damaging for business. Dissent, or negative advertising, can have detrimental effects. Twitter is no different. Guy Adams was one of, if not the leading, voice of criticism directed towards NBC’s tape-delayed coverage of the Olympic games. The offending tweet was a call to his audience to have them voice their complaints directly to NBC executive Gary Zenkel via email. Shockingly enough, NBC was not the first to go after Guy Adams. Rather, a Twitter employee discovered the Tweet and proactively alerted NBC to report it as a violation of the Twitter Rules (wrongly claiming that the executive’s company email address was private information). Twitter has since apologized and claimed it would not happen again.
Before the Guy Adam’s incident, Twitter had built up a great reputation for free speech. Some critics point to Twitter’s policy allowing country-specific censorship, but the alternative of the policy (global censorship) would be even worse. Better yet, Twitter presents users with inconspicuous gray censorship boxes (as close to flipping the bird as the company can get without being banned in a country) that display the reason behind the censorship if a tweet is ordered to be taken down. Publicly displaying censorship, rather than hiding it, is a fine way to combat it. Citizens could see the gray box and then turn to a Twitter workaround to access the content. Twitter has also partnered up with Chilling Effects, a project that collects and analyzes online legal complaints. Up to this point, Twitter has been forthright about its dealings with censorship, and, like Google, publishes yearly reports about the reports it receives.
The other social media giant, Facebook, has far more opaque policies concerning free speech. Facebook does not subscribe to Chilling Effects, nor does it publicly show what has been censored. The content disappears without a trace. Hate speech, fake accounts, pornography, and graphic violence all violate Facebook’s policies. Yet, Facebook’s enforcement of these policies varies from case to case. For instance, Facebook has removed content, such as this graphic abortion meme image, yet one can find groups that support the hate of every known ethnic or cultural group. Even James Holmes, the Aurora gunman, has a fanpage. These violations, however, have a negligible impact on Facebook’s financial well-being. The vast majority of users will never see these pages. As a result, they aren’t top priority concerns. Facebook deals with them via a user-reported system. The Guy Adams situation, in comparison, is far more alarming; Twitter preemptively went after a user critical of its business partner.
This should serve as a wake-up call. We’ve taken Twitter for granted, using it as a journalistic medium and expecting it to always be open and free. Twitter is not an infallible, free-speech loving medium. Here’s the shot to the gut: it’s a company. A company that needs to prove its long term financial viability. We’ve been blind to that fact. If you watch any television news, it’s almost guaranteed that Twitter will be somehow used in the broadcast, whether it be a Twitter tracker or an up-to-the-second report. It’s become an essential journalistic tool. We need to step back and re-examine just how much Twitter has become synonymous with free speech. Will another Guy Adam’s like situation occur? We can’t say for certain, but we do know now that it’s a possibility. And that possibility is dangerous enough.