Twitter comes up trumps, or does it? PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 30 May 2020 05:47
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Rubbishing Trump’s anti-Twitter stance y, but social media has its biases, and fixing that is not going to be easy


If Trump’s tweets justify a “get the facts” tag, surely this applies to others as well, no? Is Twitter still the public square or is it like a newspaper publisher? A fuller discussion is called for, not a pro- or anti-Trump stance


All those railing against fake news on social media—ironically, that included the US President Donald Trump—should have been happy with Twitter’s policy of labelling tweets in such a manner that warns the twitterati of the kind of content they are viewing, that it needs further corroboration, for instance. In response to a tweet by President Trump on mail-in ballots being likely to lead to voter-fraud, Twitter put a “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” label below the tweet. And, when you clicked on this, you were led to links of what some news outlets like CNN and Washington Post have said on the issue.

Since few noticed this sort of fact-checking or labelling in the past, it is hardly surprising that President Trump felt this was hostile action. Indeed, a day after the president passed an executive order on this, Twitter went a step further and didn’t allow users to see one of the president’s tweets; what viewers saw instead was a warning saying “this tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence”. Users could, if they still wished, click on the ‘view’ button and see the tweet, since the very condescending text read, “Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible”.

Indeed, after this happened, the president tweeted that he had been targeted by Twitter. What about, he asked, “all of the lies and fraudulent statements made by Adam Schiff”—this even finds mention in his executive order—“and so many others, on the Russian Witch Hunt Plus, Plus, Plus? What about China’s propaganda, WHO’s mistakes? No flags?” While several of the president’s statements have bordered on the fictional in the past, the issue he raises of bias is a serious one. Indeed, if Twitter’s actions are to be seen as non-partisan, it needs to explain why it didn’t flag so many other tweets. And since, in real life, is it not possible to have just one view on most things, it is not even clear whether Twitter has fully thought through its actions. Tweets are not just about facts (which year did India get independence?), they are about views; how do you suggest—and that is what labelling does—that some views are dishonest while others are not?

By way of example, most analysts seem to have veered around to the view that India’s post-Corona stimulus package was Rs 2 lakh crore, and not the Rs 20 lakh crore announced by Prime Minister Modi. But, should a tweet by the prime minister on the package be labelled “get the facts” since, as this newspaper has maintained, the extra borrowing and extra spending by the government—in the face of collapsing tax and other revenues due to the pandemic—need to be added to estimate the stimulus; indeed, even the Rs 3 lakh crore of guaranteed loans to MSMEs should be added to the stimulus as this will be made available over the next few months.

Should Twitter instead put a “see other views” on such tweets; but, how do you determine if the selection of views is not biased?!

This is not to argue that Twitter and other social media firms—or platforms—don’t need to do something about what their users post. A lie or a slant gets a lot more traction on Twitter or Facebook than it does on conventional media, and there is the issue of how these views can be manipulated. Indeed, an argument made about platforms like Facebook is that they reinforce biases by just pushing a certain kind of news/view once they ascertain that this is what the viewer wants. In which case, the algorithm that defines consumer likes could be the problem.

In the past, these firms got away by arguing they were today’s equivalent of the public square—it is this definition that president Trump is seeking to change—and so could not be held responsible for the content on their platforms, unlike newspaper publishers who are accountable for anything printed in the newspaper. But, when there is any form of censoring of views—even if it is called fact-checking—that blurs the line between publisher and public square. More so, since, if Twitter was serious about its new avatar, most tweets would have a “get the facts” tag, but there is little evidence of this taking place.

Fact-checking is important, but the moment a platform becomes the arbiter of the truth—to use Mark Zuckerberg’s term—it becomes problematic. Indeed, when a Facebook removes a video by Brazilian president Bolsonaro for saying hydroxychloroquine is working as a cure for Covid-19, this does sound a lot like curtailing free speech, even if Zuckerberg believes that it is not. India’s ICMR, for instance, believes that the drug is working, and many hospitals are even administering it.

There is no easy solution to the issue. But, the debate has been joined and, if the matter goes to the court, as it will eventually, that will give some new insights. Right now, it is important that both sides have been forced to come up with solutions—and justifications—for a genuine problem, and one with large ramifications.


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