Twitter’s Terrible Mistake
(This post originally appeared on Forbes)
Twitter has been at the center of a few controversies recently.
The social media service, is of course, no stranger to debate. It played prominently inthe Anthony Weiner scandal, has caused great embarrassment to corporate giants (likeMcDonalds, for instance) and was even threatened to be shut down in the UK during the Tottenham riots of 2011 (it wasn’t thank goodness). And now, more.
After Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, his daughter Zelda was subject to horrible abuse on the social media site, so bad that she ultimately quit the service. Not soon after, videos of the gruesome beheading of a journalist in the Middle East were distributed onTwitter TWTR +0.57%, causing public outrage and disgust. This was not the first time that Twitter was used in an offensive way, and not even the most outrageous. In fact, if you’re on Twitter and engage in a conversation and if you have an opinion then you are opening yourself up to abuse from anonymous trolls and jerks. That’s Twitter.
But the company is now taking steps to curb this abuse. Unfortunately.
In the case of Williams, the company issued a statement declaring that “…we have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.”
The reason, according to the Wall Street Journal is that “…like its social-media brethren, Twitter tries to walk a fine line between a dedication to free expression, an aversion to being held legally responsible for the actions of its users, and the reality that people will use such platforms to share highly offensive material—a particular concern as it seeks to expand its advertising business. The move appeared to hint that Twitter, in a special case, would actively try to stamp out sensitive content, rather than wait for users to flag each offending tweet as it has been doing.”
It’s a terrible mistake.
The reason why Twitter is Twitter is because anyone can go on it and pretty much say anything they want. It’s powerful, moving, entertaining, compelling and informative. And of course it can be intimidating, hurtful, nasty, callous and uncaring. But it’s Twitter. It’s why people all around the world use it as a primary tool for communication. It is the one place that we can go to for unfettered access to information. It’s a place where the government does not regulate or censor, unless of course you live in China, Russia or another country where your personal liberties are diminished. It is truly free speech by free people.
Twitter is, of course, a private company. So they can do what they want. And of course, there are certain limits to free speech that are universally accepted. Uses of certain profanity, unacceptable displays of pornography, menacing, illegal threats that could be construed as a potential risk to a user’s safety are all reasonable examples. These are things that should be disallowed and immediately removed. That’s because they’re illegal. Twitter doesn’t need anyone bringing this to their attention. The company has sufficient internal tools to flag this kind of abuse and remove those users from their service. And as long as they stay true to a very specific set of rules that is driven by law I don’t believe that many would feel that their free speech is being compromised.
But removing a user for saying hateful, hurtful, awful things to Zelda Williams? It’s horrible, yes. But no, Twitter shouldn’t be policing that. Let their community be the police. And let the users, like Williams, decide whether or not they want to continue to participate in such a community. Unfortunately, these are the costs of being in the public eye in today’s celebrity-driven society. Taking away that choice will only drive users away. And that’s the last thing that Twitter (and its shareholders) wants when it’s desperately trying to grow its advertising base and justify its already high valuation. The more the company’s management limits the definition of free speech or starts making judgments as to what can and cannot be said on their service outside of what’s already law, the more terrible their mistake becomes. And the higher the probability that users may flock to a new service someday which does not limit that freedom.
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