Is White Supremacy Good Business for Twitter?

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This post is cross-posted from my joint newsletter with Ranjan Roy, The Margins. Please check it out, and consider subscribing.


There are certain things reasonable people can disagree on. Should you douse your fries in ketchup or mayo? Which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars? Does god exist, and if so could we tell? There was a time, back when I had more a lot more energy and a lot less concern for psychological wellbeing of others, I thought these were debate-worthy questions.

Now, I don’t particularly care about any of those, but I also don’t think having strong opinions on such questions makes anyone a bad person. You might be a bit tedious, and maybe I’d ask you to stop Redditing in real life, but still, I’d grab a beer with you.

There are also other types of questions I don’t debate anymore. Not because I don’t care, but because having a strong opinion on these questions other than the ones I hold does make you a person I’d rather not interact with. For example, I don’t think earth is flat. Nor do I think vaccines cause autism, or that US government faked the moon landing. These are generally settled debates, if there was one to begin with.

When is white supremacy not good?

Yet, Twitter The Company, is still divided on this issue seemingly. 

Motherboard reports (emphasis mine):

Twitter is conducting in-house research to better understand how white nationalists and supremacists use the platform. The company is trying to decide, in part, whether white supremacists should be banned from the site or should be allowed to stay on the platform so their views can be debated by others, a Twitter executive told Motherboard.

Now, in 2019, you’d think we’d have also settled the debate on white supremacy. If not, let me share my views. White supremacy is a bad, vile, sick, horrible ideology that is based on nothing but pure hatred for other human beings. It has no redeeming quality and it has no place in modern discourse. You definitely do not need to or want to engage with a white supremacist, unless you are a professional politician and / or ethicist. None of those are up for debate. I am not even sorry if this absolutism bothers you.

I do not want to make the assumption that Twitter executives think white supremacy is good. Statistically speaking, there’s probably an employee or two who thinks that way, and to be kind, they can go fuck themselves. I also do not consider Jack Dorsey to be particularly #woke, but I also don’t think you need to be socially progressive to be a good CEO.

I am, however, deadly curious about how on earth you embark on a mission where you have to answer the question “Do I want to have white supremacists on this platform, which I run for profit?” and expect to come up with any answer other “No, Jack. White supremacists are bad”.

Obviously I am caricaturizing things a bit. Repeatedly yelling “white supremacy is bad!” is probably not a good way to un-radicalize those who have been lost, or make the world safer who are threatened by this such sick ideologies. Social media companies’ laissez faire approach is partly to blame for the increasing, but it’s not the only reason.

Yet, on a more logistical level, the idea that Twitter The Company has to go on this long soul searching mission to figure this out is quite crazy. I do not want to harp on Jack Dorsey too much here, but it’s really hard not to. The man’s entire brand is built on the idea that you should always think as hard as possible, to the point of not doing anything ever.

Here, let me lie down set hard truths on the table for all of us to consider, because really, we are all parts of the problem.

It’s just Business

White supremacists make Twitter money. They count as daily active users. They create engagement. Twitter shows ads to white supremacists, and takes a cut when those ads make money. White supremacists and their activity are forever embedded in the machine learning models. You don’t have to see a single Nazi tweet to have interacted with them in some way. Your tweets, your likes, everything you do on Twitter, everything you see on your timeline is influenced, monetized and funded by some white supremacist somewhere.

There’s so much shit smeared on the walls of this house, we don’t even notice it anymore. Instead, we are just discussing what color of brown we like.

There are some cliched oppositions to the idea that Twitter should just call it a day, and ban white supremacists off of Twitter. The first is that Twitter discriminately banning people off of its platform would amount to curbing of free speech. The flaw with this argument is almost too obvious to point out; Twitter is a for-profit company that has no obligation to keep any sort of speech on its site.

This is really beating a dead horse, but Twitter is not a public square, nor is it an marketplace of ideas that is run as a courtesy to its users. Twitter exists only to make money for its shareholders, and every day Twitter keeps the white supremacists on its site, it is making money off of that activity. EU-funded research puts the number of alt-right users on the site at around 100,000 minimum. Subjecting itself to the whims of the sickest people on earth based on the naive belief that the only antidote to bad speech is more speech is one thing. Pretending this does not make you money, or it’s not part of the calculus, is insulting the intelligence of everyone.

Will They, Won’t They?

Till now, I have been assuming Twitter did have the ability (in addition and as opposed to willingness). This is admittedly a generous assumption, but not a crazy one. A common argument bans is that Twitter actually may not have the ability to identify, ban, and keep the white supremacists off of its platform. But let me flip the argument on its head. Is Twitter worth anything if it cannot keep a modicum of decorum on its site?

Partly, I do not buy the idea that there are so, so many white supremacists on Twitter that an even an expansive manual cull couldn’t make a substantial difference. The aforementioned EU research puts a floor of 100,000 alt-right members on the platform, which is a big number, but not unmanageable for a well-run company. A big operation might be costly, and there could be some false positives. But if de-platforming of people such as Alex Jones to Milo Yiannopoulos have shown anything, it is that they work, and the resulting censorship frenzy around censorship generally dies off once the media cycle moves on to the next Trump tweet.

We talk about Balkanization or “splinternet” often on this newsletter. It’s worth pointing out Twitter already blocks certain content, and bans people often in countries like Germany, and yes, Turkey, where I am originally from. Twitter’s cooperation with the Turkish authorities for silencing dissent is dishonorable, but I do not particularly fault them for it. 

However, what Twitter wants to do and what it is being forced to do are two different things. Lumping them together doesn’t help. Not many people at Twitter HQ are excited about blocking journalists’ account on Erdogan’s request within Turkey. It is, however, very clear (I think?) that Twitter does think white supremacists are bad, yet they prefer to have them on their platform.

In the end, I will wholeheartedly concede that these questions are easily answered from outside then outside. From my time at Uber, I’ve seen first-hand how what appears as a small fix, a minor change in policy could be impossible to put into action for reasons unknown to even the most knowledgable experts. But then, there was also a lot of legitimate concerns with Uber’s previous management, and it resulted in a hell of a year for the company, and eventual ousting of its CEO. Twitter might very well be afraid not just losing users and engagement, but actual physical safety of its employees and executives.

And that’s really the rub. Twitter made this bed, and now has to sleep in it. Once you associate yourself with the sickest of all, you are forever stuck there. There’s no way out. Unless, that is, they choose to find one.


What I’m Reading

Grow Smarter, Faster: How Axios drives engagement with user-level dataNormally Ranjan is loathe to promote his company’s stuff on The Margins. It keeps us indie. But, he’s got me thinking a lot about newsletter analytics. One thing I never thought about was the focusing on the individual readers, as opposed to the crowds, as is common on web marketing. His team just interviewed the VP of Growth at Axios exactly on this subject and it fits my experience building this newsletter well:

“You don’t simply get a 50% open rate by having a 100% opener and a 0% opener. You get two distinct cohorts that you act upon in different ways.” Simply put, some of your audience is engaged and some isn’t. So why do we treat them all the same? We should not measure success as an aggregate, but instead try to understand if the right people are highly engaged.

The Incels Getting Extreme Plastic Surgery to Become Chads: There’s no burying the lede here. The pick-up artists gave way to the incels (“involuntarily celibates”) and now they are undergoing surgery to make themselves look more like those they hate. Cringing doesn’t even being to describe my feelings but I still couldn’t stop reading. Internet does weird things to people:

Mike recently got a jaw procedure called BSSO, plus a hair transplant. After the surgeries, he met two girls at his other job, teaching comedy, whom he considered “cute,” and he took this as a sign of success. Now he’s investing in cryptocurrency in hopes of getting more procedures with Eppley. In a recent forum thread, he posted a selfie specced out with angles and degrees, measurements of his features; he then found a photo of Tom Cruise and gave it the same treatment. (Mike’s jaw angle was 69.02 degrees; Tom’s was 76.31.) “I want to solve this woman thing,” he told me.