Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Mark Zuckerberg might be mostly right about Twitter
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Opinion | Mark Zuckerberg might be mostly right about Twitter

The view that people want to consume truth, or that they should consume truth alone, is contestable

Last week, Donald Trump was right about something. In fact, the American president was right more than once. And Twitter made one gigantic mistake.

This is what happened. Around the time Trump was tweeting a discredited conspiracy theory about the death of a woman, and her family was begging Twitter to remove the tweets, which it declined citing free speech, the social media giant did something extraordinary. It flagged two of the president’s tweets that were far less spurious but concerned what the social media outfit seems to think is our most sacred idea—elections.

The two tweets expressed Trump’s contempt for postal voting in the impending presidential elections this year. Voting by mail is permitted in the US, but its use is limited to a few voters. In the light of our pandemic, there is now a plan to significantly expand its scope, allowing millions to vote without visiting polling stations.

Trump tweeted: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed…" This tweet and a following one on the subject were flagged by Twitter in a line that said, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots", a sanctimonious intervention that led to a small paragraph with the headline, “Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud".

Defending this extraordinary move, Twitter’s chief executive officer Jack Dorsey said, “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally…"

But, despite the fact that the ‘NO WAY’ bit in his tweet was hyperbole, Trump was not entirely wrong. The New York Times, in 2012, had reported there was “error and fraud" in postal ballots. Hours after the flagging of Trump, a columnist for the Washington Post, Marc A. Thiessen, argued in defence of Trump’s observations: “No one questions that mail-in ballots have much higher rates of not being counted."

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, said that social media platforms should not be “the arbiter of truth". He is right for some simple and complex reasons.

If Twitter, a private corporation, is going to decide what is true and what is free speech, what happens if tomorrow a Chinese company buys out Twitter? Assume the Chinese government has a huge known or secret stake in that Chinese company. Will China then decide what is free speech and what statements by heads of states it will flag? Will the same group of people who support Dorsey’s fact-checking of Trump today oppose a Chinese billionaire’s fact-checking of Zoe Saldana tomorrow (my future Democratic presidential candidate)?

Also, how does Twitter know what exactly is a fact, or even what is the truth, which are two different things? Even in the simple case of postal ballots, where the substance of Trump’s claim has support in the “respectable media", Twitter got its reaction wrong.

Also, the view that people want to consume truth, that they flock to social media for the truth, or that they should consume truth alone, is too simple a view of human beings. Most ideas are ambiguous and their transmission and content are usually determined by politics. The transformative power of fake news itself is political fake news. Fake news does not make a strong man more successful than he already is. Rather, a piece of fake news becomes successful because it is about a highly popular man and tells a story that millions want to believe. This is why Trump is more popular than boiled beetroot.

Enraged by Twitter’s bias, Trump has set out to dismantle a thin piece of legislation that ensures social media platforms are not held accountable for their user content. On Thursday, he signed an executive order that threatened to legally turn social media platforms into regular publishers.

Yet, it is not as though Twitter’s Dorsey has no defence at all. If you are the head of Twitter, and you consider yourself a sane and good person, and you wield this enormous power to transmit news to hundreds of millions and shape the truths of your time, would you think it is morally right to have no control at all over the transmission? Insanity and evil are good conductors of news and emotions. Wouldn’t you then pick a flawed but less dangerous side and intervene in the power of your own product—for a good cause?

Apple is many great capitalist things, but isn’t it also Steve Jobs’ emotional point of view? Isn’t Tesla, too, a point of view? Aren’t all points of views political in some form? Why shouldn’t Twitter then have a view that will perform its ultimate task as a profit-oriented corporation—attract or repel consumers? Twitter says it is ready to face the consequences, like all good companies do.

Our age is a highly democratic one, and the evidence is in a maligned phenomenon called “polarization". As this column has argued, the defamation of polarization is the parting curse delivered by those who have lost control over the transmission of ideas. The way we have turned out, we now marvel at a time when religious patriots and asparagus-eaters, the Republicans and Democrats, used to read the same newspapers and watch the same news channels. One day, we will marvel at the fact that they used to rant on the same social media sites.

The lure of the network effect is not enough to justify the monopolies of present-day social media platforms in a world that wishes to be two sulking hemispheres.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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