Less than five months after Facebook’s CEO was summoned on Capitol Hill, on September 5, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey is expected to make his debut in Congress, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in U.S. elections. Then in the afternoon, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will grill him about claims that his company is biased against conservatives. The accusation has been levied repeatedly in recent weeks by conservative commentators and lawmakers, including President Trump (on Twitter). These complaints were part of a wave being directed at tech companies, most recently Google, which the president tweeted on August 28, was gaming search results to portray him negatively.
Twitter Inc. is in a more precarious position than its larger competitors, though. Dorsey’s company can’t match their user bases or cash reserves, and the modest user growth he’s fostered over the past two years could vanish if Twitter starts losing conservatives over concerns, warranted or not, about bans and shadow bans (in which a user’s content is invisible to everyone but themselves—a practice Twitter says it doesn’t engage in). On the other side, the service could lose liberals who won’t participate on a site they perceive to be fostering abusive speech or bending rules to accommodate conservatives.
The latest flashpoint is a decision Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and Google-owned YouTube made in early August to purge content from Alex Jones, the shock-radio host and creator of the website InfoWars, over posts and videos that violated their hate-speech and harassment policies. Twitter has also been under mounting pressure to ban Jones, notably for spreading false assertions that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was a hoax. After his competitors’ decision, Dorsey tweeted that Jones “hasn’t violated our rules” and implied that other platforms had caved to political pressure.
But days later, CNN dug up a number of Jones and InfoWars tweets that appeared to violate Twitter’s rules. The company agreed, ruling that Jones would have to delete some of them. And when, a few days after that, Jones tweeted a video in what appear to be a call for supporters to prepare their “battle rifles” for the media and others, Twitter suspended @RealAlexJones and @infowars for a week. Since then, the company has been battered by the far right, the far left, and seemingly everyone in between, demonstrating the delicate line it’s walking in trying to draw users from across the political spectrum.
To maintain a posture of political neutrality, Twitter, like other social media services, relies heavily on rule-making, aiming to create and enforce one set of guidelines for 335 million users who post in widely varying cultural contexts. This is something even Facebook, which has thousands of content moderators, sophisticated algorithms, and teams of lawyers, policy experts, and crisis-management pros, has found to be a Sisyphean task. For a smaller site like Twitter, the rock is even harder to push.
Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy, and trust and safety, says Twitter relies on software to identify the most pressing reports of violations. From there its global review team tries to determine whether the content violates its rules. If it’s a tough call or the material seems problematic but isn’t specifically prohibited, the policy team will get involved in the decision. Most rule adjustments Twitter makes draw on the expertise of its Trust and Safety Council, a group of outside advocates, academics, and researchers.
“The goal is for our policies to be clearly understandable and have steps to enforce them objectively,” Gadde says. “Where that doesn’t happen is where we need to simplify or modify our policies in some way.”
She says Twitter followed these procedures with the Jones tweets but acknowledges that “maybe we need to take a closer look at these policies and make sure that they capture the type of abusive behavior that they deem certain accounts to be now engaged in.” More broadly, Gadde admits that Twitter needs to be clearer about its rules and how its enforcement actions escalate. The site is planning, for instance, to start indicating when a deleted tweet is the result of a policy violation.
While Twitter is at pains to present its routines as rigorous, Emma Llansó, a director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which participates on the company’s trust and safety group, points out that there’s “a tension between the content moderation a platform wants to do so its users feel safe and an interest in serving as wide a population as possible.” She adds that Twitter’s “incentives line up with not having restrictions on speech.”
But with partisan passions inflamed on both sides, neutral ground has become contested terrain and taking a light touch is no longer realistic. Even public figures associated with fringe views, like Jones, have sizable numbers of ardent supporters—896,000 people follow @RealAlexJones and 431,000 follow @infowars. Jones’s cause has also been taken up by Fox News host Sean Hannity and others with far greater reach, prompting Dorsey to appeal directly to conservative audiences on Hannity’s radio show, where he explained the Alex Jones suspension and denied accusations of shadow banning. Meanwhile, at around the same time, Shannon Coulter, co-founder of consumer advocacy group Grab Your Wallet, posted a thread encouraging users to block the accounts of Fortune 500 companies, Twitter’s most lucrative advertisers, in an attempt to pressure the service to ban Jones. The tweets went viral, leading more than 50,000 people to download her block list within two days, by Coulter’s count.
All of this has come with Twitter on the cusp of proving that it can survive as an independent company. In the third quarter of last year, it shocked investors by reporting that it was growing, if incrementally. This was such a pleasant surprise that by this June, its share price had more than doubled. (Twitter’s value has dropped by almost a quarter since then, but the decline was triggered in part by its efforts to weed out fake accounts.) The precariousness of this turnaround means the stakes will be high for Dorsey next week, when he’ll likely reiterate before the House committee that Twitter is a neutral company following a set of apolitical principles. “This is a real opportunity to educate people on how our product works and the fact that we do not consider political ideology at all in making decisions,” Gadde says.
Mind you, some analysts are questioning whether this approach is actually in the company’s long-term interests. Rather, they argue, Twitter should abandon the pretense of objectivity and accept that it’s a niche platform. Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group, suggests that the sooner Twitter embraces being a media company, the better it will perform — even if that involves restricting content certain consumers want to see and losing those people. “Fewer users may lead to less usage, but it doesn’t follow directly that there will be less revenue or profitability,” he says. “A platform or media company which is clearer about what it is probably has a stronger relationship with its consumers and may subjectively be better off for advertisers.”