This one article was originally published on Built-in by David Ryan Polgar.
“Maybe Twitter should be a non-profit organization,” said the senior Trust and Safety employee. We stood at Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco and discussed the current calamitiesnamely a high level of hatred and Harassment and low levels of actual profitability†
Rumors circulated about his possible imminent sale† My companion clearly believed that the company was important to the future of communications and, by extension, democracy itself.
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Unfortunately, the ad-based business model was clearly at odds with serving the public interest. If a platform focuses its revenue on engagement, it has a strong incentive to provide users with compelling content that can be bad for public debate. Plus, despite its cultural significance, Twitter was struggling financially; perhaps it sat in an ill-fitting corporate structure to begin with.
That is not a future I would like to live in.
This happened in October 2016. Twitter hosted the Digital Citizenship Summit, an event I co-founded and hosted with speakers and attendees from around the world to discuss online safety, digital wellbeing and media literacy. Two days before this meeting, when I flew to San Francisco, the company’s internal turmoil threatened to derail the meeting completely. Both Salesforce and Disney are said to be interested in acquiring the company.
David Ryan Polgar speaks on MSNBC
Since then, Twitter has made a profit loss almost every year† Disney withdrew from the negotiations over concerns that abuse on the platform would harm his squeaky clean image.
“Like many of these platforms,” noted Disney CEO Bob IgerReferring to social media in general, “they have the ability to do a lot of good in our world. They also have the ability to do a lot of harm. I didn’t want to assume that.”
Five years later, we are still in the same predicament. Social media companies like Twitter – whether their founders intended it or not – have turned into important social institutions with serious consequences for both the future of democracy and the physical state† Yet these platforms remain constrained by their structures as for-profit corporations with a duty to their shareholders.
Be it Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk (if the twitter deal goes through) acting in the interest of the public as they run their respective businesses misses the bigger point: they should never be allowed to have such unchecked power. To allow this is to enter a future where the public is vulnerable to the whims of billionaires shaping the future of communications. That is not a future I would like to live in.
Social media companies like Twitter have turned into important social institutions with dire consequences for both the future of democracy and the human condition. Yet these platforms remain constrained by their structures as for-profit corporations with a duty to their shareholders. Their growth into de facto public city squares should require radically reinventing their corporate structure and transforming it into non-profit or benefit corporations.
Free speech does not mean the absence of moderation
†freedom of speech” is a sentence that becomes tossed around a lot today regarding social media platforms, especially regarding content moderation decisions. Unfortunately, the expression is often misinterpreted.
“Freedom of speech is not about saying what comes to mind,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a non-profit organization dedicated to defending and celebrating the free speech of writers around the world. “It’s about protecting the right to participate. That makes consultation and democracy possible.”
No person should ever have that much power in a healthy democracy.
Nossel was speaking at the recent Responsible Tech Summit: improving digital spaces event hosted by All Tech Is Human, the non-profit organization I run dedicated to improving the responsible tech ecosystem.
Elon Musk’s whole argument About Twitter is based on a flawed premise: he seems to believe that reducing the number of decisions and content moderation guidelines promotes freedom of expression. It doesn’t.
Instead, it simply transfers the power to make complex decisions about free speech from the public domain to a mercurial billionaire. That is not progress; it’s a dystopian future. Society becomes trapped in a “benevolent dictatorship” where we have to hope that he makes the right decision. No person should ever have that much power in a healthy democracy.
Musk, whether he recognizes it or not, has created a kind of paradox in his approach to Twitter. “Since Twitter acts as the de facto public town square, failure to adhere to the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy,” he tweeted on March 26.
But if Musk acknowledges Twitter’s public role, he eliminates his authority to run it privately. In other words, public squares are run publicly, not privately. Imagine handing that authority over to one person, sending shivers down your spine.
If Twitter really is the de facto public square, it would require a much greater involvement from government to ensure fairness, accountability and transparency. You know, the stuff we have in a functioning democracy.
The growth of Twitter into a “de facto public town square,” I would say, should necessitate a radical overhaul of the corporate structure and transform it into a non-profit or benefits organization, which is a legal structure that benefits the general public. for society as an objective of business, not just profit maximization.
If the platform greatly influences the audience – if both Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk argue it does – the business model should serve the public good and not the shareholders or the ego of a company leader.
Where do we go from here?
I like to say that there is no magic button to solve the problems facing social media platforms. The current state of social media is a Gordian Knot, an impossibly difficult, tangled web of complexity that humbles the myriad opinion leaders and organizations offering solutions.
Reducing hate speech on platforms is relinquishing a significant amount of power to those platforms in determining eligibility. By tackling disinformation on social media, companies with limited transparency and public accountability become arbiters of the truth.
It is not that social media companies are making the wrong decisions, but rather that the right decisions cannot be made. Making decisions regarding speech means diving into a messy world of trade-offs. The public allows the government to make these difficult decisions because we exercise power through the political process. However, that is not the case with social media platforms.
Anything less is anti-democratic.
In my opinion, the only way to undo this Gordian Knot is for social media to more closely link the roles of government and platforms. To untangle, we may need to get more entangled.
What would this look like? Well, in the short term it would mean that platforms continue to build out the trappings of democratic structures to judge issues of fairness and accountability and exercise oversight.
We split our government departments in the US into a group that makes laws (legislative), one that enforces them (executive) and a group that interprets them (legal). Social media platforms need an equally clear separation between departments that develop terms of service and community guidelines, which enforce rules and interpret when problems arise. This is exactly why the Supervisory Board was originally called Facebook’s High Council — it has a similar structure and purpose.
Since the general public often interacts with platforms in a quasi-governmental way, platforms will increasingly move in that direction. What hasn’t happened yet, however, is creating more reliable ways to ensure transparency. At the moment we tend to rely on platforms to develop their own advisory boards and provide reporting; in the coming years, these will likely be government-appointed officials and boards intertwined with tech companies as social media ombudspersons.
For any platform that evolves into a de facto public square, the public must be involved in oversight. Anything less is anti-democratic.