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Twittering away free speech

The Twitter webpage contains the heady declaration, “We believe in free expression and think every voice has the power to impact the world.”

That’s a ringing credo. But it turns out that some voices are louder than others. Particularly voices that wage attacks without substance. A study published in “Science” determined that false claims published on Twitter traveled “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information” and false political claims were the fastest and deepest of all.

Twitter has chosen to remain on the sidelines about this. Its public statement is “we cannot distinguish whether every simple tweet from every person is truthful or not. We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth.”

But over and over again, the truth doesn’t prevail. Twitter’s own CEO, Jack Dorsey, has admitted that many tweets contain “abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers.”

Twitter came into being in 2006 as a way to disseminate information at the speed of light. Users were limited to 140 characters (increased in 2017 to 240) to write headline-like bulletins. In three or four sentences they could report breaking news and pithy reactions to current events.

Millions became users. Buoyed by its success, Twitter became a public company in November 2013 with its stock climbing to $73.31 the day after Christmas. That remains its high point. Two and a half years later the stock had sunk to $14.01. The biggest problem was Twitter’s inability to attract advertisers.

It had plenty of users, even though its annual growth had slowed to 3.4 percent in 2017, projected to 2 percent in 2020. Executives have vowed to hold onto the users it has. CFO Ned Segal recently stated, “Our focus continues to be to drive usage of Twitter as a daily utility.”

In the case of many users, that isn’t too hard a trick. A study published in “Psychological Science” found Twitter to be more addictive than cigarettes, alcohol, or caffeine. James A. Roberts, a specialist in the study of addiction, determined that President Trump’s Twitter usage scored 10 on his 12-point addiction score. Anything above 8 is “full-blown addiction.” The president averages 8 daily tweets.

And how does Trump weigh in with his tweets? Here is a glaring example. Two days after Election Day 2016 Eric Tucker tweeted that he had seen many busses bringing paid participants to an anti-Trump rally in Austin, Texas. In fact, the busses were carrying 13,000 attendees to a software conference. Tucker soon learned that he was mistaken and rectified his error with a subsequent tweet, rationalizing, “I’m a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.”

Trump didn’t notice that. In a typically self-congratulatory tweet he wrote, “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”

In a recent New York Times column, Farhad Manjoo wrote, “The president often uses the service to seed threats and falsehoods into the world—falsehoods that are then picked up and amplified by supporters and critics alike, ricocheting to deafening effect across the news.” The false news from Austin carried the day, amplified by the newly elected president. The truth did not prevail.

Elsewhere in the column Manjoo wrote, “Twitter is used every day to infuse misogyny, racial and ethnic animus and conspiratorial thinking into mainstream news coverage.” Twitter users collect around opposing camps and do not conduct dialogue as much as carrying out shouting matches. Twitter’s ability to broadcast tweets instantly obviates the need for nuanced, considered thinking. Its brevity yields declarations little better than bumper stickers.

In the most recent quarter Twitter showed a profit for the first time and its stock price has risen to its IPO level. Many of the devoted Twitter users feast on rumor-mongering tweets that simply add to public dissention. Where is Twitter’s incentive to address this destructive discourse?

Dennis Read lives in Ashland.

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