Companies like Twitter and Facebook strive to meddle with how people want to use their platform as little as possible, as if only doing it a little, sometimes, means they can remain mostly neutral. Most recently, Twitter, purged a number of bots from its platform causing some users to take to their digital soapboxes to allege that partisan bias had played a role in the purge (a claim which has been disproven). These platforms have long hid behind comfortable (yet utterly meaningless) vagaries like “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
For a long time, users even supported the free-speech bent of social media: the consensus had been that trying to tamp down bad actors by “depriving them of oxygen” would never work, and they would just find other places to air their opinions. We should “meet them in the marketplace of ideas,” said lots of people, and let the force of the market tell them they were wrong. While this may have been a good idea in principle, the internet is too large and impersonal and allows every fringe cause to find its audience and justify itself. No bad idea goes unheard, and nothing matters more than sheer volume.
Years of outbursts from hate group after hate group have forced these companies to realize that the laissez-faire attitude they’ve leaned on for so long doesn’t actually work, but rather, makes the entire thing rot from the inside. But the fact that platforms won’t fully commit to managing the content that people spew on these platforms leaves a vacuum of confusion and hypotheticals, which generally (like all things nowadays) lead to conspiracies and misinformation.
In all this time, no company has actually tried totally depriving bad ideas of oxygen. Trust me, this is a sentence I never thought I’d say, but in times like these, Twitter (and the tech world as a whole, really) could learn a thing or two from Medium.
On February 7, Medium totally overhauled the rules governing its users and the site as a whole. The company completely eschewed the bullshit, buzzword-filled platitudes that had padded its policy section for years (what does “We believe free expression deserves a lot of leeway…” honestly even mean in this day and age?), and replaced it with a modern and realistic set of policies designed for the disinformation-ridden hellscape of today. Medium explicitly took a stand against those who spread disinformation and hate, both on and off the platform, writing: “We do not allow posts or accounts that engage in on-platform, off-platform, or cross-platform campaigns of targeting, harassment, hate speech, violence, or disinformation. We may consider off-platform actions in assessing a Medium account, and restrict access or availability to that account.” (Emphasis ours.) Then Medium moved to act on those stated beliefs and suspended the accounts of a number of prominent alt-right scumbags, including Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, and Laura Loomer.
Medium will probably run into some practical challenges when trying to police this on a platform-wide scale — it will be almost impossible to apply its policies in a way that will satisfy every group. But the company seems to have already anticipated this. “In deciding whether someone has violated the rules, we will take into account things like newsworthiness, the context and nature of the posted information, and applicable privacy laws,” says the updated rules page. Meaning, while this is a site-wide policy, the brunt of its enforcement efforts will be focused on the most egregious offenders. The Mike Cernoviches and Laura Loomers of the world get the boot first, as they’re doing the most noticeable harm, perhaps a particularly viral #CrisisActor post would be next, and so on and so forth.
In doing this, Medium is acknowledging that it’s not perfect and probably never will be. It isn’t going to be able to eradicate each and every disinformation-spreading account in one fell swoop, nor should it be expected to. Instead, it’s going to do its best and take on the cases it feels like taking on. That may mean that that platform, as a whole, won’t be a free-speech free-for-all.
The marketplace of ideas has categorically failed now, and Twitter might want to seriously consider investing in its community in the same way Medium is. It needs to stop ignoring the disinformation mongers and Nazis in its midst, and start banning them. Deverification isn’t enough.
Twitter isn't a public utility; it's a company — it's not beholden to the first amendment. If Jack Dorsey really wants to curb fake news and stomp out hate on his platform, he should just go ahead and do it already. Nothing is stopping him.
Correction: An earlier version of this post identified Twitter as a "private" company in an attempt to highlight the fact that it is not a public utility. It is a public company.