Some hard truths about Twitter’s health crisis

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It’s a testament to quite how control freaky and hermetically sealed to criticism the tech industry is that Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey went unscripted in front of his own brand live streaming service this week, inviting users to lob awkward questions at him for the first time ever.

It’s also a testament to how much trouble social media is in. As I’ve written before, ‘fake news’ is an existential crisis for platforms whose business model requires them to fence vast quantities of unverified content uploaded by, at best, poorly verified users.

No content, no dice, as it were. But things get a whole lot more complicated when you have to consider what the content actually is; who wrote it; whether it’s genuine or not; and what its messaging might be doing to your users, to others and to society at large.

As a major MIT study looking at a decade’s worth of tweets — and also published this week — underlines: Information does not spread equally.

More specifically, fact-checked information that has been rated true seems to be less sharable than fact-checked information that has been rated false. Or to put it more plainly: Novel/outrageous content is more viral.

This is entirely unsurprising. As Jonathan Swift put it all the way back in the 1700s: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” New research, old truth.

What’s also true is that as social media’s major platforms have scaled, so too have the problems blasted through their megaphones zoomed into mainstream view.

Concerns have ballooned. We’re now at a structural level, debating societal fundamentals like cohesion, civility, democracy. Even, you could argue, confronting humanity itself. Platform as a term has always had a dehumanizing ring. Perhaps that’s their underlying truth too.

Dorsey says the “health” of conversations on his platform is now the company’s “number one priority” — more than a decade after he typed that vapid first tweet, “just setting up my twttr”, when he presumably had zero idea of all the horrible things humans would end up using his technology for.

But it’s also at least half a decade after warnings that trolls and bots were running rampant on Twitter’s platform.

Turns out the future comes at you eventually. Even if you stubbornly refuse to listen as alarm after alarm are being sounded. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” wrote John Donne, meditating on society and the individual, back in 1624.

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