What if you created something that allowed people to make fun of you? Such is the life and career of Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter. Yesterday the tech guru did a TED Talk public conversation with the head of TED, Chris Anderson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers, TED’s current affairs curator. The major part of the whole conversation involved around the recent “concerns and opportunities for Twitter’s future.”
For most of the interview, Dorsey outlined steps that Twitter has taken to combat abuse and misinformation, and Anderson explained why the company’s critics sometimes find those steps insufficient and unsatisfying. He compared Twitter to the Titanic, and Dorsey to the captain, listening to passengers’ concerns about the iceberg up ahead — then going back to the bridge and showing “this extraordinary calm.”
“It’s democracy at stake, it’s our culture at stake,” Anderson said, echoing points made in a talk by British journalist Carole Cadwalladr. So why isn’t Twitter addressing these issues with more urgency? “We are working as quickly as we can, but quickness will not get the job done,” Dorsey replied to Anderson. “It’s focus, it’s prioritization, it’s understanding the fundamentals of the network.”
Jack further argued that while Twitter could “do a bunch of superficial things to address the things you’re talking about,” that isn’t the real solution.
“We want the changes to last, and that means going really, really deep,” Dorsey said. In his view, that means rethinking how Twitter incentivizes user behavior. He suggested that the service works best as an “interest-based network,” where you log in and see content relevant to your interests, no matter who posted it — rather than a network where everyone feels like they need to follow a bunch of other accounts, and then grow their follower numbers in turn.
Dorsey recalled that when the team was first building the service, it decided to make follower count “big and bold,” which naturally made people focus on it. “Was that the right decision at the time? Probably not,” he said. “If I had to start the service again, I would not emphasize the follower count as much…
Since he isn’t starting from scratch, Dorsey suggested that he’s trying to find ways to redesign Twitter to shift the “bias” away from accounts and toward interests. He also pointed to efforts that Twitter has already announced to measure (and then improve) conversational health and to use machine learning to automatically detect abusive content.
In terms of how the company is currently measuring its success, Dorsey said it focuses primarily on daily active users, and secondly on “conversation chains — we want to incentivize healthy contributions back to the network.”
In contradiction to his response when over the weekend, Ilhan Omar an immigrant, and a Black Muslim representing the state of Minnesota in the US House of representatives —reported an increase in death threats. The threats started appearing after President Trump tweeted out a video that intercut a speech she had given with footage of the 9/11 attacks. Many of the threats were made on Twitter. Then on Monday, as Notre Dame burned, people came to the platform to mourn the loss in real time, but also to spread lies and hate as quickly as the flames engulfed the cathedral’s spire. When Omar tweeted her own heartfelt condolences, people replied with more death threats.
Dorsey didn’t address any of these incidents specifically at TED. In fact, his answers lacked specificity overall. One Twitter user, Chad Loder created a Twitter moment to stand with Ilhan Omar. He asked users to report all the tweets with death threats to Ilhan. To this Twitter safety team removed all the tweets in just 30 minutes and he could not further add any tweets.
In the last 30 min, @TwitterSaftey cleared it & I can't add more tweets. Those tweets are STILL ONLINE. https://t.co/6NPvAgoHRu
— Chad Loder (@chadloder) April 16, 2019
When Jack was asked pointed questions, he evaded them, as he often does. Rodgers further asked him how many people are working on content moderation on Twitter—a number the company has never published. “It varies,” Dorsey replied. “We want to be flexible on this. There are no amount of people that can actually scale this, which is why we have done so much work on proactively taking down abuse.”
Dorsey further announced that a year ago, Twitter wasn’t proactively monitoring abuse actively using machine learning at all. Instead, it relied entirely on human reporting—a burden Dorsey later had to recognized was unfairly put on the victims of the abuse. “We’ve made progress,” he said. “Thirty-eight percent of abusive tweets are now proactively recognized by machine-learning algorithms, but those that are recognized are still reviewed by humans. But that was from zero percent just a year ago.” As he uttered those words, Twitter sent out a press release with more information on the effort, highlighting that three times more abusive accounts are being suspended within 24 hours of getting reported compared with this time last year.
The progress of 38% is not exactly a lot when Facebook’s most recent transparency report, says that over 51% of content on hate speech was flagged before users reported it. Nor did Dorsey or the official Twitter announcement provide many details about how the technology to proactively flag abuse works.
While the conversations continued, they came up with an idea to invite Twitter users to tweet questions via the hashtag #AskJackAtTED, which was then projected on a big screen behind Dorsey. Looking at all the tweets coming up live it seemed to be a really bad idea.
Do you have a question for @jack? Share it using the hashtag #AskJackAtTED. @WhitPennRod and @TEDChris are now interviewing him about concerns and opportunities for Twitter's future. Your questions may appear live on stage at #TED2019.
— TED Talks (@TEDTalks) April 16, 2019
In Twitter spirit, sarcastic piercing tweets soon overflowed on the screen asking Dorsey crisp pointed questions about long pending failures to make the platform a safe place for healthy conversation. Users charged Dorsey left, right and centre with questions. Carole Cadwalladr asked why a video that showed her being beaten up & threatened with a gun to soundtrack of Russian anthem stayed up for 72 hours despite 1000s of complaints. Other came up saying how do you prioritize healthy conversations without silencing protest on your platform?
Ooh exciting. @jack is taking questions from Twitter users live at TED today. Anyone?? I’d like to know why a video that showed me being beaten up & threatened with a gun to soundtrack of Russian anthem stayed up for 72 hours despite 1000s of complaints, @jack?#AskJackAtTED pic.twitter.com/KuRdNoDyAY
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) April 16, 2019
#AskJackAtTED how are you going to “reduce outrage” and “prioritize healthy conversations” without silencing protest and without silencing voices dissenting against power? because that is already beginning to look like an (intentional?) outcome
— jonny sun (@jonnysun) April 16, 2019
Tweets continued pouring in with questions like why is women harassment on the platform ignored for decades and why do you still allow Nazi groups on Twitter.
Why have you ignored the harassment of women and POC on twitter for over a decade? #AskJackAtTED
— Becca Lewis (@beccalew) April 16, 2019
Why are Nazis allowed on Twitter? #AskJackAtTED
— Talia Lavin (@chick_in_kiev) April 16, 2019
One of them asked if there was anyway to add a fact-check function to viral tweets which involves misinformation or conspiracy theories.
— Molly Jong-Fast (@MollyJongFast) April 16, 2019
Another popular tweet said it wants Twitter to create a user bill where they have the right to be free of harassment and the right to safety.
As consumers of your product, we all should have basic rights.
The right to be free of harassment.
The right to safety.
The right to have user terms and policy feedback.#AskJackAtTED
— Red T Raccoon (@RedTRaccoon) April 16, 2019
#AskJackAtTED Now that your platform has played a significant role in the end of humankind, what's your next step? Have you considered blowing up the sun? It seems like a logical next step.
— mav (@olmaverick) April 16, 2019
Yo #AskJackAtTED. How many of your 330M monthly active users are bots?
— Baratunde (@baratunde) April 16, 2019
#AskJackAtTED You just said your metrics create toxicity. So… you're CEO. Why not change them right now?
— John Battelle (@johnbattelle) April 16, 2019
Nobody “values” Twitter. It’s a means to an end. And certainly nobody likes it. #AskJackAtTed
— Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson (@MaraWilson) April 16, 2019
While some users said that Twitter is of no value at all others raised questions on why does the platform allow the organizers of Charlottesville disaster amplify their message and find new recruits. Another added why is President Donald Trump allowed to violate Twitter policies by spreading hateful and inflammatory tweets against Ilhan Omar.
Your website has an enormous population of Nazis, including the organizers of the Charlottesville disaster. They use Twitter to organize, amplify their message, and find new recruits. Why does Twitter allow its platform to be used in this way? #AskJackAtTed
— Dan O'Sullivan (@Bro_Pair) April 16, 2019
#AskJackatTed: doesnt Donald Trump violate the terms and conditions of Twitter with his inflammatory, inciteful tweets? For example his latest tweet against Ilhan Omar? Why is he above the standards placed on the rest of us?#TED2019
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) April 16, 2019
Hey Jack, what steps are you taking to remove public figures who use your platform to encourage hatred and violence? #AskJackAtTED
— ella dawson @ #TED2019 (@brosandprose) April 16, 2019
Eventually the tweets disappeared from the screen and someone from the audience made a suspicion that it was always a plan to ditch in between. On the other hand Anderson summed it up sarcastically: “We are on this great voyage with you on a ship, and there are people on board in steerage who are expressing discomfort and you, unlike other captains are saying, ‘well, tell me, I want to hear,’ and they’re saying ‘we’re worried about the iceberg ahead,’” Anderson says. “And you say, ‘our ship hasn’t been built for steering as well as it might,’ and you’re showing this extraordinary calm!”