In the rush to make sense of President-elect Donald Trump, one of hundreds of seemingly logical conclusions is that the social platforms we live on — the newest, most powerful tools of media, discovery, and expression — didn’t live up to their promise. That after years of promoting themselves as tools to connect the world and elevate all voices, what we got instead was a sharp public increase in ideological division, fake news, and harassment. All this makes makes it easy to point toward the Facebooks and Twitters of the world and say that they failed. But the truth is more unsettling: they really didn’t fail at all.
In fact, throughout the fifteen month election slog, Facebook, Twitter and the social platforms we live on functioned exactly as designed — rapidly disseminating information, providing a real-time look into the pulse of the nation. Throughout the cycle and almost without exception, they were reflective of the national mood and elevated a political movement by giving voice to a previously unheard constituency — just as the companies had hoped they would. Argument, opinion, ideology — all these things were amplified widely and powerfully across Twitter, Facebook, and places like Reddit. In the end, these platforms worked exactly as their founders intended — just on behalf of a group they didn't see coming with views that many who worked on their development are now struggling to come to terms with.
Coming as it does after Trump’s unexpected election win, this kind of reckoning feels fresh and raw. But it’s nothing new. For the last ten years, the crash of utopian idealism against the rocks of human reality has arguably been the defining story of the internet.
And the heart of this tension is a theoretically admirable commitment to free speech. You see it with Reddit, a social news site conceived to be the front page of the internet — the pulse of a democratized medium. In 2013, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian explained his thoughts on the internet’s promise to Forbes, noting that “ideas spread faster and further than ever before, whether they’re yours to learn or to share. To join in the industrial revolution you needed to open a factory, in the internet revolution you need to open a laptop.”
Three years later, and two days after the recent presidential election, Leslie Miley, Twitter’s former engineering manager, offered a similar analogy. “The impact of Twitter and Facebook -- their ability to rapidly disseminate information without a chance to process it — is analogous to building out factories or automobiles in the early part of the 20th century and not realizing the environmental and health effects,” he said. “In this rush to build and to acquire users and money, [some of the information] getting spread is not accurate and you [don’t have] time to react in any way but emotionally.”
As a megaphone for political discourse, Twitter was vital to the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump, who used 140 character missives to bypass the press, rake in earned media, program cable news talking points, and rally supporters. As a flat platform, Twitter did what it was supposed to. The result was the empowerment of the insurgent political movement of the alt-right who, through a coordinated effort of trolling and online organization, drove enthusiasm and momentum against the establishment and for Trump. Trolling and ideologies aside, the mechanics of this weren’t much different than those of the Iranian Revolution protestors, or the Arab Spring, or even Black Lives Matter, all of which Twitter was lauded for empowering.
“I remember conversations we had at Twitter while watching the Arab Spring and the Boston Bombing,” Miley said. “At some point I said, ‘don't we have a responsibility not to distribute certain information? At what point are we going to see some user use our platform to spread wrong information and people die from it?’” And Miley had good reason to ask that question: “I could see this happening at twitter and no one else was asking that — it’s just a rush to build and a rush to 'disrupt.’ There’s no fact-checking on the information our platform spreads. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat — they could give a goddamn about facts.”
Facebook, in response to earlier election related questions from BuzzFeed News, said the platform was "one of many ways people received their information." A spokesperson for Twitter provided the following statement: “... Scapegoating social media for an election result ignores the vital roles that candidates, journalists, and voters play in the democratic process.” Facebook responded to an additional request for comment, noting that Zuckerberg would be speaking at the Techonomy conference later today; Twitter has not responded to an additional request for comment.
As the reality of a Trump administration sinks in, the reckoning has just begun for many who’ve helped to build platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In a conversation yesterday, one former senior Twitter employee, present in many of the company’s crucial strategy meetings, said that Twitter’s failure to define itself helped provide the structure that embraced, amplified and extended Trump’s message to an audience keenly attuned to hearing it.
“The company's inability and unwillingness to choose what it needed to be and defaulting into this anything goes state — having it be the ‘honeypot for assholes’ — is haunting us today,” the source said, noting that Twitter is President-elect’s platform of choice to amplify perhaps his most coherent message.
“If you're Donald Trump and you say, ‘God, if we could just scare people enough and make them feel sufficiently insecure; if we could play upon their deepest apprehensions and worries and just have a platform to effectively distribute that message then we’d be in good shape,”” the source said. “Well, we got it. ...If alienated, lesser-educated, disproportionately white men and white women needed a digital platform to validate their alienation and apprehensions, well, you'd build them the retweet.” It’s worth noting, the source said, how Trump used Twitter’s retweet feature to amplify the voices of white supremacists and professional trolls as part of his message to the American people, all without saying it himself. “The retweet allowed a prominent public figure like Donald Trump to share with his millions of followers, in the absence of a full on endorsement, a kind of winking attaboy with the most vile people in the world.”
For Vivian Schiller,the former CEO of NPR who once headed up Twitter’s news operation, Twitter isn’t so much a filter bubble as a platform for weaponizing ideology. “The fact that Twitter is often instant and relentlessly reverse chronological and unfiltered means it's very hard to hide from ideas,” she told BuzzFeed News “That comes with some nasty byproducts, like trolls and abuse, but it's nearly impossible to be in denial on twitter. It's the opposite of a space safe from uncomfortable ideas.” The rawness, which can often manifest in surfacing the worst humanity has to offer, in other words, is baked into the platform’s DNA.
Twitter wasn’t drawn up this way, As with Reddit, enabling hatred, misogyny, xenophobia, and abuse was not the founders intent. But like Reddit, Twitter’s idealistic, maximalist free speech origins lacked a clear thesis and definition to define its evolution. As one former Twitter employee told me back in August, homogenous leadership at Twitter was at the heart of the company’s struggle with abuse; simply put, the straight white leadership didn’t adequately envision how their platform could be used for evil. “They were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color,” the former employee said.
Ethan Zuckerman, the Director for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab cites the platforms’ exponential scaling as part of the problem. “These platforms were designed as villages and then became cities and continents and there just wasn’t that kind of long-term planning involved,” he said.
Zuckerman cited the backlash in recent days against Facebook News Feed, for its algorithmic approach to its News Feed. “I don’t think somebody sat at Facebook sat down and said, ‘let’s create an amazing propaganda machine to delegitimize mainstream media as a whole,’” he said of News Feed’s share and like based incentive structure that has exacerbated filter bubbles and the sharing of fake news. Schiller echoed this point as well.. “Don’t blame Facebook,” she wrote. “They could not have been clearer when they released this statement on June 29th [which read,] ‘Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook’. With this blog post, they quite literally declare themselves in the filter bubble business.”
“What all platforms ought to be doing now is studying themselves as aggressively as all of us are studying them,” Zuckerman said. “They need to be asking, ‘is this where we want our technology to go?’ And these companies have to think of an abuse department as a community management department that’s constantly asking, ‘what do we want to be?’”
That sort of self-introspection has, historically, been rare at the big platforms. Twitter’s response to its ten years of amplifying harassment has rarely produced more than a tacit acknowledgement of the problem and a resolve not to stray from its free speech foundings while Facebook’s commitment to news is consistently overshadowed by its ambition to connect the world and to show users what they want. In both cases, like Reddit, the arduous process of examining their roles and course correcting often loses out to the idealistic promise of the original vision.
“I wouldn’t say that Twitter and the platforms did what they were supposed to do, but they definitely did what they're presently set up to do,” the senior former Twitter employee said. “And that’s because nobody has ever really intervened to fix them in ways that were quite fixable if you just had a thesis for what it was supposed to be. We've built our own weapon of social destruction and haven't handled it with care. I think that’s a fair conclusion.”
Miley echoed the thought. “Black Lives Matter used Twitter with ruthless effectiveness. So did Gamergaters. And guess who else learned to use it with ruthless effectiveness? Trump and the alt-right — few did it better.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, there’s a reckoning occurring among Silicon Valley’s rank and file.But it’s not at all clear if it extends to the founders of Twitter and Facebook, who continue to shape those platforms. For now, these leaders seem more apprehensive to acknowledge their role and more willing to discuss the internet we wanted and thought was possible than the internet of our current reality.
Last night, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted vaguely about politics and the role that his companies (Dorsey is also CEO of Square) might play in the future. But he stopped short of acknowledging Twitter’s role in the months and years leading up to the election. “I commit to using the privilege I currently have to always speak this truth to power, and to ensure the common good leads everything we do,” he said. Similarly, a statement from Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was sober, hopeful and ambitious, but did not acknowledge questions of media responsibility that have dogged the social network for the past 15 months.
In response to a Bloomberg article about Facebook’s role in the election, a Facebook spokeswoman also shied away from any culpability saying, “while Facebook played a part in this election, it was just one of many ways people received their information – and was one of the many ways people connected with their leaders, engaged in the political process and shared their views.”
There are two ways to interpret that statement. The first, as a defensive abdication of responsibility. The other? The platform worked just as it was supposed to do.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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