Last week, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed disappeared. After seeing the violence in the Capitol, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided that Trump’s feed was inciting violence and removed it. But Dorsey’s tweets explaining the ban were meandering and confusing.
Let’s take a look at what Dorsey tweeted . . . and what he could have said that was clearer.
Analyzing Dorsey’s Twitter thread.
Let’s start with this: Twitter’s decision to deplatform Trump is a big deal. Not only is he the president of the United States, he’s the leader of a movement with tens of millions of followers. It is certainly the case that Trump’s feed was full of lies, “alternative facts,” and provocations — but was this enough to end it? We have to know where Twitter and other social networks draw the line, with as much clarity as possible.
Let’s take this thread apart.
I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?
I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.
This tweet is of a piece with the whole thread — it’s conflicted. It matters not whether Jack feels pride. What matters is the criteria on which they made the decision. I also don’t give a crap whether Twitter “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance.” I care how they made the decision.
That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.
Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.
More “we did it and we feel bad.” I support Twitter’s describing itself as a key part of the public conversation. But you can’t be a platform and at the same time decry “the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.” You are a key part of that conversation — own it.
The check and accountability on this power has always been the fact that a service like Twitter is one small part of the larger public conversation happening across the internet. If folks do not agree with our rules and enforcement, they can simply go to another internet service.
This concept was challenged last week when a number of foundational internet tool providers also decided not to host what they found dangerous. I do not believe this was coordinated. More likely: companies came to their own conclusions or were emboldened by the actions of others.
This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.
Look at the passive “This concept was challenged last week,” and the bizarre “I do not believe this was coordinated.” You’re the CEO of a huge social network — did you coordinate or not? It’s fine for Dorsey to observe the internet and muse about it, but as a justification for his company’s actions, it’s strangely disconnected.
Yes, we all need to look critically at inconsistencies of our policy and enforcement. Yes, we need to look at how our service might incentivize distraction and harm. Yes, we need more transparency in our moderation operations. All this can’t erode a free and open global internet.
You have to do these things. But by citing the weaknesses and inconsistencies in your own company’s practices, you undermine your own decision.
The reason I have so much passion for #Bitcoin is largely because of the model it demonstrates: a foundational internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any single individual or entity. This is what the internet wants to be, and over time, more of it will be.
Off topic and distracting.
We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media. Our goal is to be a client of that standard for the public conversation layer of the internet. We call it @bluesky:
This will take time to build. We are in the process of interviewing and hiring folks, looking at both starting a standard from scratch or contributing to something that already exists. No matter the ultimate direction, we will do this work completely through public transparency.
This, ultimately, is also off topic. First off, the BlueSky initiative is far from certain to succeed. And second, it once again evades responsibility for what Dorsey just did. A potential solution years from now can’t be part of an explanation for what you did last week.
It’s important that we acknowledge this is a time of great uncertainty and struggle for so many around the world. Our goal in this moment is to disarm as much as we can, and ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding, and a more peaceful existence on earth.
I believe the internet and global public conversation is our best and most relevant method of achieving this. I also recognize it does not feel that way today. Everything we learn in this moment will better our effort, and push us to be what we are: one humanity working together.
Peace, baby. That’s a bit unsatisfying. How did we get here from where we started? If you’re confused, I don’t blame you — that’s what happens when people write without a clear idea of what they want to accomplish.
The context for this statement and the Twitter ban
To understand what this could have and should have said, reflect on what it was supposed to accomplish. Jack Dorsey’s job here is to explain and justify his decision to deplatform Trump, not to muse about the blue sky future of the Internet.
He also ignores the plainest fact of all: that Trump, through his repeated distortions and provocations, put himself in this position. Twitter does fine at removing people who aren’t world leaders and incite violence. It would not have had to develop a policy for what to do about world leaders who incite violence except for Trump.
There is another, more subtle issue that this statement fails to address as well. Here are Trump’s actual tweets that led to the ban:
The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!
To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.
They don’t sound very violent, just reading them.
In Twitter’s official statement on the ban, it uses a twisted justification that involves people reading the tweets as a dog-whistle for violence, including:
President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate and is seen as him disavowing his previous claim made via two Tweets (1, 2) by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Dan Scavino, that there would be an “orderly transition” on January 20th.
The second Tweet may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a “safe” target, as he will not be attending.
The use of the words “American Patriots” to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.
The mention of his supporters having a “GIANT VOICE long into the future” and that “They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an “orderly transition” and instead that he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election.
Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.
There’s are many passive voice evasions in this statement. It reads as “We saw violence, we saw Trump talking, we saw bad things happening, so we deplatformed Trump.” That’s pretty weak.
If Twitter did the right thing, it needs a better explanation — and so does Jack Dorsey.
A better statement
If you’re taking a step as significant as removing the president’s Twitter, you really need to be clearer. And it also helps to tell the truth, instead of hiding it.
So here’s the statement Jack Dorsey and Twitter could have made that might actually have helped. (You can imagine this broken up into tweets if you want.)
We at Twitter didn’t take the step of removing the @realdonaldtrump account lightly. We want Twitter to be a place for open dialogue, and would prefer not to remove the accounts of world leaders.
However, President Trump’s Twitter feed has consistently been filled with retweets of false information, especially lately about the election. His provocation and encouragement of those unwilling to accept his defeat ultimately led his followers to attack the Capitol this week.
It’s clear from past history that his continued use of Twitter will lead to more violence. We suspended his Twitter account because we don’t allow the glorification of violence, even by world leaders.
In retrospect, we should have made this decision sooner. By waiting until actual violence occurred, we contributed to putting people at risk. In any case, it’s clear now that we should never allow such speech on our platform.
We did not make this decision in consultation with other internet services. The other services that have suspended the president’s account did so independently, but likely for the same reasons as we did, and in response to similar events and statements.
We will suspend any account that glorifies violence and repeatedly shares lies about the election, regardless of the position the owner of that account holds. Twitter will not be a party to violence.