Twitter dangerously decides to become editor

I don’t tweet. But millions of people do. And millions more people use Twitter as their barometer of the world. It’s even recently been suggested Twitter is the driver of the New York Times front page.

It’s regrettable to me, but Twitter has a lot of influence on the way people see the world. So it was a pretty big deal when Twitter decided recently to start putting warning labels on tweets, red flagging them for content it deems of questionable accuracy.

And, of course, the policy started with a warning label on something tweeted by President Trump, its most famous user. Trump says a lot of questionable things on Twitter. But so do terrorists and rogue dictators — for years. And now, a few months before a presidential election, Twitter decides it wants to become a universal editor of content.

The problem is, Twitter, Facebook and the whole Internet have no editor.

Who is evaluating what to fact check among the millions of tweets? How can they possibly evaluate everything and apply nebulous judgements equally? Would they have fact checked President Obama for saying, “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor?”

Twitter and Facebook are allowed to host what can be cesspools of hate, misinformation and libelous accusations because they are seen as facilitators of free speech. They are given more latitude than newspapers and television and radio news outlets.

Once they deem to judge what tweets to fact check or not, they become publishers that should be held to publishing rules.

Twitter is a conversation between the person tweeting and those responding. It’s their conversation that is not intended to have a third party interrupting, no matter how tempting it might be.

I feel the temptation. This newspaper’s Letters to the Editor feature is legitimately the forerunner to tweeting. Readers write opinions, usually emotionally with a good share of hyperbole and a generous stretching of fact that blurs the lines of accuracy.

Over a 25-year period of overseeing thousands of letters to this newspaper, I got to facilitate a lot of emotion and blurred vision. Never once did I reference the end of a letter with a place where the facts could be checked.

Because that was not the mission. The mission was to get as many letters in the newspaper as possible representing as many viewpoints as possible and allow the readers to have their conversation. If they agree with each other, fine. If they want to verbally tear each other’s eyes out, fine. It’s their discussion. And it is a matter of pride to say this newspaper continues to publish more letters from readers than any paper in Pennsylvania and perhaps the nation. The only judgment is whether a letter meets a modest standard of printable.

And if a reader wants to avoid the “twitter” section of the paper, just as I avoid the real Twitter, that is their choice.

President Trump uses Twitter as an end run around a mainstream media he believes does not play it straight when reporting on him and his administration. He believes it is the best way for him to get out his message without misrepresentation. He says he would cut back significantly on tweeting if the media would stick to simply reporting on him fairly. I doubt his ego would allow that and a lot of the unfairness Trump speaks of is partly a product of his insistence on an edgy manner of communication. It invites challenge.

But there are daily examples of reporting on Trump, his administration and issues that are either inaccurate or so unbalanced in presentation that it isn’t even journalism. And it can’t be a coincidence that all the inaccuracies are to the detriment rather than benefit of Trump.

And so he Tweets. To a humongous following.

And so he offends. And the offended fight back.

And he responds. And so on.

It’s not my style. It may or may not be your style.

But Twitter’s own mission statement is focused on being a worldwide facilitator for people of all types to carry on a conversation about just about anything.

Facebook’s leader Mark Zuckerburg, asked to comment on Twitter’s move to red flag content, said Facebook chooses not to become an arbiter regarding content.

He would do well to continue that philosophy. Twitter’s leadership has allowed its dislike of Trump to produce a policy it cannot possibly execute effectively. Twitter has the right to do this under First Amendment protections. But in doing so, it has unmasked itself as an arbiter — one of questionable objectivity — rather than a facilitator.

And Twitter is about to find out that the rules of publishing come with a lot more vulnerability.

In the parlance of today, Twitter has stepped in it. And the long-term smell may be a stench that sends millions of people scurrying from the room.

David F. Troisi is retired as editor of the Sun-Gazette.


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