Michelle Rempel Garner: Think Parler was bad? Look at Twitter.
We should abandon all of these poisonous social media platforms.
By: Michelle Rempel Garner
This week, Big Tech effectively shut down Parler: a Twitter-like social media app that, companies like Amazon and Apple argued, had violated terms of service by failing to effectively moderate and remove incitement to violence and hate speech.
Indeed, the app had become a home for the alt-right, pro-Trump activists, like the ones who stormed Capitol Hill last week.
So while there is truth to Big Tech’s claims, their position raises larger questions that have been ignored by legislators and tech leaders. What is the responsibility of major social media sites to censor content that could be considered hate speech, and what are individuals’ rights and responsibilities related to free speech in that context?
The decision to shut down Parler suggests that the tech sector is accepting both responsibility and liability with regard to regulating speech. With this precedent set, Parler is small potatoes compared to the biggest culprit of weaponized misinformation, hate, and the death of rational argument: Twitter.
Donald Trump amassed nearly 90 million followers before Twitter deactivated his account. That’s because Twitter and its investors profit from accounts like Trump’s. Twitter rewards hyperbole, rhetoric, aggressiveness, and hate — anything to encourage users to spend more time there. The platform is structured to punish moderation and consensus building. Its algorithms reward anti-social behaviours, and the site generates income from the division it sows.
Twitter doesn’t care about free speech, about the state of political discourse, its role in our democracy, or about the violence and abuse that its human users might suffer. Twitter cares about profit.
Case in point: Twitter is infested with armies of unverified bot accounts that special interest groups and political actors employ to pull even the most moderate arguments to the extreme. If the platform were more profitable without anonymous accounts, it would exist without those anonymous accounts. If it were more profitable without state-run Russian bot-farms, Twitter would purge them. It does not. Left or right, Twitter’s business model relies on us hating each other.
Twitter has no requirement to uphold free speech. It does so as a business practice when it’s profitable to do so, and even then, only sometimes.
Conversely, when Twitter deletes someone, it’s not doing so out of a commitment to non-violence, nor out of a deep-rooted sense of corporate social responsibility. Instead, it applies bans capriciously and performatively.
If bans were consistent and principled, many more accounts would kicked to the curb.
Having built a bigger, better matchbox, Twitter is now acting as if it is on the side of the angels by issuing warnings against arson. At this point, it’s likely doing so only as a form of reputational damage control.
Profit is important for economic growth. But so is the peace, order and good government of our society. On the latter items, Twitter is an imminent threat.
It’s a threat because it encourages us to react emotionally and instantly to everything — even things that we should take time and think about. It’s a threat because it eliminates nuance, and penalizes politicians who build relationships across the aisle. Twitter has changed the process for responding to a mainstream news cycle, placing more pressure on parties and politicians into generating ever-more rapid and emotive responses. I’m guilty of falling into this trap, myself.
It enables lazy politics and lazier reporting about politics.
As a conservative, I believe that societies are more than just a random set of individuals interacting with another random set of individuals. We have institutions, and aspirations and values. These things are meant to bring us together for common action. Sometimes, that’s getting the Humane Society a new building. Other times, it’s electing a government. All of those things get harder — all of them — if one of our chief mediums of communication encourages us to micro-sort ourselves by rigid political belief, and then spew venom at people who question our dogma.
Twitter enables violence. I’ve personally had to go to court for death and rape threats levelled at me over the years. Twitter rewards rage, and dehumanization.
There are those who still believe we can fix Twitter.
Maybe once, the platform could have eliminated the anonymous accounts, invested time and assets into investigating troll farms, and strictly barred violent threats. It could have made changes to clearly label accounts that are really functionaries of a political actor or special interest group.
Maybe once, we could have taken a deep breath and held a rational conversation about civic responsibility on a platform that asks you to make a point on difficult issues in 280 characters.
That moment is past. Twitter has weaponized rage, and profits by it. A consensus should arrive that it needs to be abandoned; to make it a place where no one comes to get news or to make news.
None of this suggests that because Twitter and Parler are what they are means that we can divest ourselves of our own responsibility in elevating civil discourse. Rather, it’s the opposite. I started an account on Parler months ago, as did several Canadian journalists and politicians, including our Prime Minister. This is what any public figure does with an emerging platform. I posted content there for a couple of weeks, didn’t like the outlet, and then stopped using it.
For all of the reasons above, it’s probably time we exercise our right to free speech and do the same with Twitter. Until we collectively demand better — and do better — its rage driven profit algorithm will continue to win at our expense.
Michelle Rempel Garner is a Conservative MP who represents the riding of Calgary Nose Hill.
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