Twitter has agreed to allow the Center for Media and Democracy to determine what content it will delete, whether those deleted tweets will be labeled or labeled altogether. This means that going forward, if there are tweets on the platform designed to undermine democracy, they will be labeled by the Center.
As a result, given current debates in the U.S. about a special counsel investigation and presidential campaign behavior, this new agreement could make a real difference in how future challenges are addressed online.
First, Twitter could have said no. Yet when push came to shove, the company sent a letter to the CMD, signed by general counsel Vijaya Gadde, explaining that Twitter had agreed to its demands: “On the surface, Twitter’s response to our investigation appears to suggest that it understands that it, too, can be used to disseminate material harmful to democracy, as we have seen over the past years,” wrote the CMD executive director, Christopher Bastasch.
“If true, this would be unprecedented and alarming.”
But yes, it is true: Twitter seems to agree that it is a censorship power. And what this is really about is replacing local, nongovernmental monitoring of the Internet with publicly funded, federal monitors — as occurred, for example, when the George W. Bush Administration set up the very similar National Security Agency domestically, the very same agency that is under investigation for abusing its powers.
If there are problems with the Internet, we need people to be monitoring it: there are foreign governments, individuals, communities and nonprofits that do it now. Our elected representatives — our lawmakers, politicians — have other things to do. They need to have access to the technical and social information available online. Having a technical fix offered for no fee, while excluding critics of Twitter from the discussion, will compromise that basic separation between freedom of speech and government restrictions.
Second, it doesn’t matter how much information is taken down. All that matters is how much of it is talked about. The deletion of material generally does not cover the substance of the message. And to me, transparency is the only thing that matters. To hide political messages, one has to hide the data under which the messages are sent.
There will, as a result, be only one way to know what we are talking about — and we already know. By monitoring Twitter itself, using software to find tweets, sending and receiving tweets — and monitoring our own conversations — we will get the extent of the problem, on any given day or even any given minute.
Both Americans and foreigners living abroad will be able to see. And in the process, we can understand the world better and expose the pernicious use of social media, which was intended to democratize discourse and end all crony capitalism. But it has so often instead substituted thuggery for a representative democracy, enabled terrorist groups and given political hate speech a venue to thrive.
Twitter has been silent for a long time when it comes to the use of its system for misinformation, speech-suppression and criminal propaganda. Now it’s taking a second look. But the key question is whether it is truly going to be transparent and open with its own censorship.