Twitter flags versus censorship

Throughout this semester, I have asked some students in my data analytics class to think about how data is relevant to current events. Undergraduate Jack Brittle wrote this article about data and election news.

Sometimes public attention moves on quickly after an election is over. Today, on November 15th, voting and messaging is still being debated. It was a month ago on October 14th that Twitter locked up the digital platform of the New York Post, a right-leaning newspaper.

This was an important development in the debate about whether tech companies have the authority to censor posts written by users.

Twitter initially said that linking to the Post stories violated the social-media company’s policies against posting material that contains personal information and is obtained via hacking. As the story broke, Twitter began preventing users from tweeting the stories. Twitter locked the Post’s account, saying it would be unlocked only after it deleted earlier tweets that linked to the stories.” (Wall Street Journal). Twitter suspended a major American newspaper. This move is viewed by some as a direct threat to the freedom of the press. Twitter and other major tech companies came under fire for their ability to manipulate and control media. After major pressure and backlash, Twitter released the account back to the New York Post. “Twitter on Friday unlocked the New York Post’s Twitter account, ending a stalemate between the social-media company and the newspaper stemming from the latter’s publication of stories it said were based on documents obtained from the laptop of Hunter Biden. “We’re baaaaaaack,” the Post’s Twitter account tweeted on a Friday afternoon, just minutes after Twitter said that it was reversing its policies in a way that would allow the Post to be reinstated.” (Wall Street Journal).

It seems that Twitter backed down in that instance. The fundamental question has not been resolved. Should Big Tech censor material on their platforms?

First, there is a school of thought that believes Twitter has the right to control the flow of information on its platforms. Companies like Twitter are not breaking any laws by doing this. Do they not have the right to support and defend certain social causes? By only allowing users to see certain opinions and facts, Twitter can choose to support different policies. It’s not laws but our expectation of media that leads to controversy. Twitter should allow a free flow of information in order to create an open marketplace of ideas.

However, a new difficulty arises because of “fake news”. Now more than ever, media can be manipulated to create certain storylines by nefarious users. According to studies, “fake news” spreads nearly six times faster across digital platforms that real news stories. This leaves Twitter between a rock and a hard place. Do they control information spreading on their site and risk censoring the wrong material, like some consider to be the case of the New York Post article? Or do they take a hands-off approach, allowing all stories to have a place in the arena?

These giant tech firms have unprecedented power. Not only are they gaining massive amounts of data about people and firms, they also have the unique ability to shape their users’ outlook on a variety of ideas and events. These data giants are struggling with how to manage these capabilities and will no doubt continue to update and reform policy.

A example of evolving policies is the treatment of President Trump since November 3rd. Since election day, Donald Trump, has tweeted challenges to official vote counts. Trump has not only claimed voter fraud but also claimed he has won states where vote counts favor Joe Biden. Twitter has since developed a flagging system that adds a note on any tweet that Twitter deems misleading. Instead of censoring the president by locking the entire account, there are flags warning about disinformation. This system seems to be an improvement over previous ways Twitter has handled misleading information. It allows users to see all information but also be warned about potentially questionable information. I expect these policies to continue to evolve as tech companies grapple with the difficult task of managing the flow of information.

One thought on “Twitter flags versus censorship

  1. Scott Buchanan November 17, 2020 / 11:06 am

    Good points…hopefully the flagging method will help Twitter implement its biases without being so heavy handed (I agree that Trump’s claims are bogus, but I don’t recall Twitter suspending the accounts of the many folks exchanging certain unfounded claims about Trump and Russia)


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