Hi, folks, it’s Steven, greeting you from WFH-land. Instead of SXSW tacos, I am gobbling up prepper rations and documenting one of the scariest episodes of my lifetime. On the brighter side, at least this email newsletter doesn’t draw you out to the porch to retrieve it.
The Plain View
On Monday, Donald J. Trump posted the following tweet, which later appeared in his Facebook feed:
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
While this isn’t as outright false as many of the president’s public utterances, it is in line with the stream of nonscientific and misleading assurances that he has been spreading over the past few weeks. What is now identified as a deadly pandemic, he kept saying, is nothing to worry about. The result is that Americans who tend to believe Donald Trump (and evidence exists that many do) have been getting information that may well shorten their own lives or those of the people they come in contact with.
Twitter and Facebook both have realized that they have a responsibility to suppress and even eradicate false claims about Covid-19. Last month Facebook said it would limit disinformation about the spread of the virus. Twitter has also vowed to “protect the public conversation about Covid-19.”
But so far that vigilance has not applied to the president. I think it should.
Taking that step would require rethinking a decision that each platform came to independently. Ever since Trump’s campaign for president, both services have been struggling with the unique challenge this very public figure presents. Facebook and Twitter have to balance two opposing principles: keeping their platforms safe and giving voice to public issues. But there is no satisfactory compromise to make when a presidential candidate, and then a president, makes statements that violate policies regarding hate speech and false information. After internal discussions among executives, both companies decided to simply allow Trump to spew unfiltered. He is just too newsworthy, the reasoning goes. People should hear what leaders have to say and make their own decisions! In Facebook’s case, it also seemed that the decision was based on a reluctance to inflame conservatives.
But now we are in a different phase: The verbiage from the Orange Man in the White House has regularly involved misleading assurances about a lethal pandemic. If heeded, those words have the potential to increase people’s chances of being exposed to a disease that may kill them.
I don’t suggest that the president be censored, which is the explicit line that both Dorsey and Zuckerberg are unwilling to to cross. But instead of hitting us with their usual justification for inaction—“You don’t want us to decide what content is OK!”—they should be asking themselves, “When do we need to inform our users that content is dangerous, no matter who says it?”
Facebook already has a way to flag false content without removing it. The company hires fact-checkers to vet certain posts, and when it circulates stories deemed false, it supplies additional information that leads all but the dimmest or most close-minded users to sniff out the stuff that comes from bovine males.
Twitter has a similar policy that specifically cites what happens if a newsworthy world leader posts a harmful tweet. In such cases, it says, “we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content.” But Twitter has not exercised that policy over Trump’s dangerously sanguine pronouncements—not even once.
If ever there was a time to provide context over the false and dangerous statements from the president of the United States, it is now. But don’t take it just from me. On Wednesday, the White House itself gathered representatives from many of the top tech companies. Among the measures suggested by the nation’s chief technology officer, Michael Kratsios, was “to identify best practices to root out Covid-19 misinformation.”
Our top technology officer did not mention any exceptions. We should not make one for the misinformer-in-chief.
In April 2017, I interviewed Jack Dorsey about Donald Trump’s tweeting habits, and just what, exactly, Dorsey intended to do—or not do—about them:
Steven Levy: Now that he has won, there’s a question of whether Twitter should hold a president accountable to the same standards as other users. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg reportedly told employees he was not going to censor a nominee’s—and then a president’s—posts. Did you have to make a decision on that?
Jack Dorsey: I think it’s really important that we maintain open channels to our leaders, whether we like what they’re saying or not, because I don’t know of another way to hold them accountable. Any time we have any leader tweet, including Trump, there’s a very interesting and thriving conversation. A mixture of fact checking, disagreement, agreement, and some random things.
SL: If someone complained about a Trump tweet, would you conceivably say, “This is unacceptable,” and then block the president of the United States?
JD: We are going to hold all accounts to the same standards. Our policy does [account for] newsworthiness as well, and that was requested by our policy team. So we’re not taking something down that people should be able to report on and actually show that this is what the source said. It’s really important to make sure that we provide that source for the right reporting, and to minimize bias in articles.
Ask Me One Thing
Tom tells me that after reading a post on Slashdot about how millions of bots are spreading climate denial, he longs for a service where all posts are verified. “I think we can go a long way to making the online world a more reliable source of information and a center of civil discourse if we do away with anonymity and have users create verifiable accounts … Anonymous accounts seem to me to encourage behavior that most people would otherwise be ashamed of and would control … How about having an alternate version of Twitter? This site would have registered users whose identity is known and verified.”
Tom, it’s great to know that you are still reading Slashdot, which has survived for decades—despite its wanton use of pseudonyms! Slashdot demonstrates that you can have a good discussion without Homeland Security verifying your identity. As an original member of the legendary WELL online conference space, I do appreciate Stewart Brand’s contention that the rich discussions there succeeded because the service discouraged anonymity. But for a variety of reasons, sometimes people can bring valuable points to a discussion only if their true identity is shrouded. I do think that Twitter might want to consider an option where people can choose to see only tweets posted by people who have proved their authenticity, with perhaps some hand-picked exceptions for fun parody accounts and whistle-blower types.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
So much to choose from. But nothing says that the world is coming to an end more than videos of mass gang wars waged by Thai monkeys deprived of their normal tourist food source.