Charles C. Camosy: Does Twitter Need to Become a Public Utility?

Twitter has dramatically and uniquely shaped the U.S. political ecosystem.

It is inconceivable that Donald Trump could have become president and now control the news cycle without the social media platform. Journalists have an obsession with it, and opinion writers push out their opinions via Twitter if they want their pieces read by political influencers. No serious candidate for major political office would run without first establishing a significant Twitter presence.

If this makes you wonder whether Twitter should be regulated like a public utility rather than a private company, you’re not alone.

To see why this may be necessary, consider that as a private company Twitter has two concerns: (1) making money and (2) reflecting the values of the people who run it.

More on (1) in a moment. The problem with (2) is that the values of the people who run Twitter — like all people — are far from neutral. Tech companies in Northern California, unsurprisingly, have a strongly progressive culture. This had led many Twitter users, especially in the last couple years, to highlight what they believe are signs of significant bias against more conservative viewpoints.

Jack Dorsey, a co-founder and now CEO of Twitter, is a native Midwesterner and understands the moral diversity of the United States better than most in Silicon Valley. I believe he genuinely wants to make Twitter a platform that doesn’t rule, as he has said, “according to political ideology or viewpoints.” But in order to reach his goal of having the largest number of people participate, Dorsey has had to create limits, prohibiting targeted harassment, hateful conduct and promotion of violence.

Policing all this is a near impossible job, in part because of the sheer number of tweets. In a recent interview with popular podcaster Joe Rogan, Dorsey and Twitter’s legal expert were pushed to wrestle with a pluralistic culture in which millions and millions of people have different views.

But prohibiting hateful speech online is also difficult because of the nature of morality itself.  

The problem — as philosophers and theologians have been arguing for many decades now — is that there is simply no way Dorsey, or any of us, can take a neutral ideological stand on what terms like harassment, hate and violence mean. One needs to employ a “thick” or specified understanding of “the good” — something at least akin to belief in a religious tradition — for these terms to have content.

Take the example of Twitter’s policy of prohibiting purposeful “misgendering” — referring to a transgender person by a name or pronouns by their birth gender, or any other than the one with which they now identify, despite how they refer to themselves.

For people with a certain kind of traditional ideology, however, “misgendering” means the opposite of what Twitter says it means. From the perspective of Silicon Valley’s dominant ideology, the views of this more traditional thinker would rightly be labeled hateful and their public expression on Twitter as harassment or even a kind of violence.

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Source: Religion News Service