Building a Better Twitter


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/06/building-a-better-twitter/
1 Like

Can’t wait to see how twitter shakes out. I had a discussion a few days ago with some people who were very concerned about Musk “getting to decide who the bots are that he is going to remove”. Could not get them to understand that bots are not humans…

The older I get, the more I realize how many people don’t actually understand any of the technology we use every day.

4 Likes

Recently, a number of Left-wing anti-war sites including the likes of Consortium had their Pay Pals suspended. We may not like or agree with their content but it is important to remember that it often the voices of dissent which speak most directly to challenge entrenched power, as well as being considerably more likely in the aggregate to serve the function of the wisdom of the crowd, once we’ve filtered out all the crazy.

Consider this- without dissent we wouldn’t know that masks were ineffective, that (other than at the very start of the pandemic and with border-based controls) the effects of lockdowns were minimal at best. Without the excellent Intercept article on the subject, we wouldn’t know that the Lab Leak hypothesis was 99% likely, given the mutation in Covid-19 was exactly the same type of furin cleavage manipulation seen in a 2018 DARPA proposal.

The list goes on. More recently, dissenting voices were the ones who highlighted research which shows that booster shots for the 16 to 22 age range are an extraordinarily bad idea, given that the risks of hospitalisation for this cohort from Covid are 0.3 per 100,000, whilst booster shots cause myocarditis at a rate of 10 in 100,000 for this age range.

Bullying and trolls are a distraction, as is misinformation. The real issue is that social media has changed our world’s structure in psychological terms. In the past those with ‘out there’ viewpoints faced the barrier of social enforcement to find like-minded people, but they still existed. We had our UFO conferences, our Flat Earthers and David Ike adherents espousing their beliefs that the royal family were lizard people.

We just didn’t notice it, or we simply dismissed it as being a problem far removed from the mainstream. The only thing which has really changed is that far more people are willing to profess belief in fringe theories for political purposes out of a sense of tribal loyalty than before. 41% of Republicans might express sympathy for QAnon, but when one drills down into how many people actually believe the details, the number is closer to 4%- exactly the same percentage of people who would have been dismissed as the tinfoil hat wearing brigade only a decade ago.

What’s changed is that we now get a front row seat to their derangement. We get to witness credulous and naive individuals falling for the spiel in real time, and can do little to prevent it. Contrary to our expectations, these people aren’t all dumb as a post, they just happen to fall into the category of highly suggestable- exactly the type of people who in previous times confessed to crimes they didn’t commit with only bare minimal pressure from police. We may think social media is spreading this phenomenon, but all the evidence tends to suggest that contemporary derangement is no more or less common than it was before- it only seems that way because we get to witness the crazy up close and personal.

In many ways sitting in our homes inviting the world in through our computer screens is similar to the effects the extension of personal space has on drivers. Take a relatively modest, polite and temperate subscriber to the social contract and put him behind the wheel of a car and he will quickly become a snarling beast with Tourette’s syndrome. It’s because the glass bubble, insulation and constant motion extends his fiefdom of personal space 60 yards in all directions. The internet is the same, when we invite the world into our living rooms, home offices and kitchens.

In many ways the psychological impact this has on us, is the equivalent of witnessing four car wrecks a day, if we are heavy users of the internet. People who read their comments on Twitter are particularly prone to it, for the simple reason that in these instances it’s akin to inviting crazy into a form of direct personal attacks. And it’s a platform, with its reductive constraints, which turns media commenters into the equivalent of gladiatorial combatants engaging in the back and forth of quid pro quo.

There should be at least some decorum-based restraints. Don’t physically threaten, don’t threaten to rape and don’t dox, but generally we are kidding ourselves if we think that any attempts to moderate Twitter will make it anything other than a WWF of verbal assault and slanging matches. The only difference Elon Musk will make is that conservatives will no longer serve as the masked villains in this modern kayfabe, with the woke cosplaying the role of virtuous caped champions with blue-tick marks. That’s what they are so angry about- in the past the referee knew the way the wrestling match was supposed to go, was in on it and was ready to suspend the Proud Boys without suspending Antifa.

The one thing we should be deeply worried about is the institutionally corrosive nature of social media and the internet. There are no second chances in this arena. Any mistake or misstep will haunt an institution, or even a brand, forever. Public Health has learned this to their cost- those institutions which have weathered the storm the most intact are those which provided objective, warts and all information, from which the public could make their own informed choices. And by and large it has led to higher vaccine uptake where this approach has prevailed.

It’s about trust. The ability to perceive attempts by others to persuade, manipulate, cajole or frighten into compliance doesn’t seem to be at all correlated with intelligence or education- the only difference intelligence makes is in understanding how its done- with the less educated left feeling deeply suspicious, and often downright hostile, but unable to pick apart the more complex means of manipulation or sugar-coating.

This in turn leaves them open to bad actors and those who only pretend competency. I’ve seen even relatively bright people misled by bad statistical interpretation using mathematically misrepresentative summations which don’t compare like for like. But the danger is in seeing the misinformation as the root cause of the problem, when the real issue is that institutions should attempt to refrain from trying to persuade the public, lest they burn their future credibility when the advice of the moment is contradicted by subsequent evidence.

There is nothing wrong with saying we simply don’t know, but we would advise people to err on the side of caution. Institutions and politicians also need to harden themselves against a media landscape which is intent upon inflating threat to sell news, when the feedback will inevitably be corrosive to the institution and political party in the long-run. The loss of trust and institutional credibility is what fuelled vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, not the structure of social media or the internet- although both of the latter do play a role in making past mistakes glaringly obvious for all time.

Instead we need to understand that whilst misinformation will always exist, as will conspiracy theories and lies, they only gain the ability to spread and procreate once institutions have dismantled their own credibility through the patronising belief that ordinary people need persuading for their own good. It is the information void created by misguided attempts to persuade which opens people up to misinformation, not the misinformation itself. Even someone dumb as a brick will know instantly that a shop assistant is being disingenuous if they tell you that you look nice in that. Public Health shouldn’t strain to look like a well credentialed used car salesman.

Although Public Health should obviously ask for worst case scenarios for the purposes of planning, they should only publish most likely data to the public. Far better to underestimate, face public anger and a few more deaths, than lose credibility, the compliance of the public and risk far higher deaths in the long-run. Ultimately, the art of persuasion has little to do with the act of attempting to persuade, instead it’s all about establishing the reputation for trustworthiness, and the ability to admit humbly and publicly one’s occasional mistakes.

Although the UK did use fearmongering and bad predictions during the pandemic, is still managed to maintain institutional integrity for the most part, meaning that only 25% of all deaths occurred once vaccines were readily available. America adopted an attitude in which bad studies were published by the CDC, smear campaigns towards well-credentialed critics like Jay Bhattacharya were common and censorship was rife. 40% of America’s deaths occurred during the post-vaccination phase. To be fair, America has been in the process of dismantling its own institutional credibility from within for some time, but the bad attitude within institutions during the pandemic has only made things a thousand times worse. Trust is earned, not a given- especially when the institutional bows to the political.

3 Likes

“But even most libertarians will acknowledge that some rules are necessary when it comes to speech that is threatening, libellous, or persistently vexatious.”

Nice idea. But the current Twitter allows death threats, as long as they are PC. See https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/1510359599165100032 for one (of many) example.

" It serves up both false positives and false negatives—wrongly banning certain accounts for thoughtcrimes while permitting others to continue on the platform despite engaging in grotesquely abusive behavior. If Mr. Musk wants to begin fixing Twitter, both of these problems are ripe for repair."

Very true. Supposedly, Twitter bans antisemitism. However, in real life Twitter has no problems with antisemitism… As long as it is PC. See “17,000 tweet ‘Hitler was right,’ and Big Tech barely reacts” (17,000 tweet 'Hitler was right,' and Big Tech barely reacts)

4 Likes

I can’t see the article. Again, I’m asked to log in, but I am already logged in. Gak!

As with Covid, I prefer natural immunity to vaccines and lockdowns. Back in the day, Walter C. filtered out the lunacy for you, now you hafta learn to do it yourself but folks had that skill – or needed to have it – for most of history. I don’t think you have it perfect yet Geary, but you’re on the case, keep working on this. ‘How we all went crazy’.

Me neither.

1 Like

Twitter is both a progenitor and victim of much larger divisive forces whose hostilities have been amplified by the kind of ideological positioning and leveraging that goes on when this happens. The rise of Trump and Covid simply amplified pre-existing conflicts and threat fears across the board.

Worse, the new media platforms vastly amplify people making themselves sound for all the world like ‘experts’, who really know what they are talking about, when all that is going on is propaganda. Science, politics and ideology become hopelessly conflated into high opinionatation, where the opinionators have very high and authoritatively certain opinions of themselves, regardless of whether that view is justified.

And then there is the magic of money that enables vacant opinionating or sectional interest lobbying look very convincing to the fundamentally uninformed, or worse, semi-informed; you know, a little knowledge being dangerous because the little knowledged have no idea how weakly based their opinions are, or that they are in effect being ‘fed’ by characters and institutions they know next to nothing about, or what their agendas are.

All sides have had a field day in an environment where no fruitcakery is too extreme to not to be made plausible to mass audiences that have not been taught even the most rudimentary critical thinking, despite unprecedented access to knowledge on any subject.

In the age of print, mass constituencies were protected from misinformation and ideological posturing, at least to some extent, by institutions of record that had accumulated authority and reputation for information prudence and veracity. In the digital age, anybody can be a do-it-yourself expert-who-knows.

And the problem of platforms like Twitter is that when it comes say to public health and dealing with a pandemic emergency, no society can afford to lose control of the health narrative and managing its variables, because the whole strategy can come crashing down and turn into not just a mess, but large numbers of corpses and very sick people drowning the medical system. The US has become a terrible exemplar of the genre.

Pissing off The Woke inside Twitter won’t change any of that, or the bitterness and aggression that now informs public discourse. If Twitter doesn’t play ball with powerful constituencies, the disaffected go somewhere else, like I did in coming here to Quillette…

Musk’s Twitter will in all likelihood similarly push a chunk of Wokes back to their own heartlands that they can still control.

No matter what Twitter or anybody else does in the digital space, the layout for eventual war will go on apace, as the world order that came out of the last World War disintegrates and the struggle to fill the vacuum takes off. We are all playing in a game where the stakes are impossibly large and no one can afford to lose.

It is startling. Most people don’t understand the completely arbitrary jumble of restrictions on Twitter. Trump banned, Iranian and Russian regimes not, for example. Both QAnon and Antifa used Twitter (along with Facebook) to organize violent actions. No consistent removal.

Musk needs to start with a clean slate and first principles. The Quillette podcast on moderation is a good place to start. Another is the common sense program:

  1. Break them up.
  2. Limit or end their addictive/manipulative business models.
  3. End the abuse of Section 230.

The last two can be implemented voluntarily. #3 means the company admitting that social media sites are “publishers.” An existing body of law and standards then apply, including rules about libel, defamation, and incitement, as well as paying content creators for republished content. These are established within the larger rules and precedents balancing free speech and legal liability.

These rules are simple in principle and can be applied fairly across the board. Of course, there will be unhappy employees from the Woke contingent (every tech company now has them). They can head for the door.

3 Likes