Today, The Verge published an article stating that Twitter has drawn a small line in the sand with respect to the tweeting habits of the 45 president of the United States. Adi Robertson reports that Twitter has suggested that while it is important not to censor or remove important public figures like the president from the platform, it will draw the line at “tweets that reveal a private address or phone number”. Of course, not all people agree with this stand. For example, Sam Harris clearly stated in a recent podcast that he thinks Trump should be banned from Twitter, since the damage he can do via a Tweet is just so great. Twitter’s response though, is one worth considering. When is it appropriate to silence a public figure on a platform like Twitter? And when is it actually in the public interest to support a person’s right to make even crazy or patently false claims on the site?
Some would say that it is ALWAYS better to allow anyone to tweet anything. They may suggest that democracy requires information to thrive. This argument would refer back to the liberal press and its links to a public sphere. As demonstrated through the reformation, the rise in daily newspaper availability first, and later the professionalization of journalism ushered in the rise of democracy in the west. A more free flowing access to information for the public at large meant that people could potentially be better equipped to hold those in positions of power to account. Of course, this has never been a perfect system, and newspaper owners and editors have long acted as gatekeepers determining what information was released and when. However, a key standard of practice following the professionalization of journalism was the drive towards truth and verification in reporting, meaning, that if the news was printed, it had a high likelihood of veracity.
Fast forward to 2017, and many news outlets are threatened in part by the rise of social media platforms like Twitter. In this case, one would be forgiven for thinking that Twitter could actually be seen as an improvement over the liberal press, as it allows anyone the ability to share their thoughts with the world in an unfiltered way. Unfortunately though, in practice, it doesn’t work that way. Twitter engages in filtering of your timeline, meaning that the tweets you see are curated based mostly on popularity, and Twitter is acting as an editor or gatekeeper. My research has shown that as a result, the messages that travel far on the platform and get seen by many are those posted by high-profile people, or those messages that are most controversial. Or in other words, on Twitter, celebrity “trumps” truth. This key difference between Twitter and the liberal press is one we should all be concerned with, since truth is required for democratic participation. As social media platforms in 280 characters or less supplement or surpass traditional news media as sources of information, we might be very concerned about our ability to call the powerful into account. At the very least, we need to develop new systems to do so.