Editorial: Do we really want to live in a world where Twitter is the fact checker?

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It has been clear for awhile now that Twitter executives prefer communicating in short bursts of 280 characters. Evidently, they keep their deep thinking within those parameters too.

Twitter last week took an action against the president and some of his tweets, apparently in an effort to show the world that it is becoming more responsible and a greater champion for the truth.

Heaven help us if Twitter is the champion of truth. Or maybe it would be best to rephrase that in Twitter speak: #OhCrap, #Hosed, #YouGottaBeKidding.

If you aren’t up to speed, Twitter “fact checked” tweets of the president and the White House involving the dangers of mail-in ballots. It did so by directing Twitter users to click on a link that takes people to some reputable news sites that have done reporting on the use of mail-in ballots. Since most people don’t click on links, the main thing Twitter users saw was the link’s headline of “! Get the facts about mail-in ballots.”

Why haven’t we thought of this before? An exclamation point directing people to get the facts. That surely will solve this.

Actually, we all likely will find the power of the exclamation point lacking. President Donald Trump’s true followers don’t treat his Twitter account like a research library. They read his tweets because they like his point of view. Given his point of view on the mainstream media, directing those followers to links for media articles will do little to change their minds.

But perhaps you think it is at least worth trying, or these changes send the right symbolic message. That’s wrong on both counts. Twitter is playing into the president’s hands. Twitter has provided Trump the opening he needs to claim the social media giant is against him and everyone like him. It will be an easy argument to make because Trump will have no problem finding examples of garbage content on Twitter that the company doesn’t fact check. Thus, the narrative of Trump the victim will take hold.

It further plays into the president’s hands because it takes attention away from matters he really doesn’t want to discuss, such as a COVID-19 death toll that now tops 100,000 people and unemployment rolls that have tens of millions on them. He’s struggling to find answers that even make sense to his base, let alone a majority of voters. If the travel ban worked so well, why do so many countries so much closer to the outbreak have so many fewer cases, even on a per capita basis? If the problem is that China was hiding the severity of the outbreak, how is it that Trump was played for such a fool by the Chinese? Why is it that a man who supposedly has such great instincts thought it was a good idea to trust the Chinese on any matter, let alone this one?

Looking through that lens it is easy to see why Trump’s best strategy is to get the country talking about Twitter.

Symbolically, Twitter’s actions aren’t good because they send a false message to all of us. They send the message that Twitter can fix this. It can’t, at least not if the company wants to maintain its current form. As any journalist can tell you, the best way to moderate content is to simply not publish every piece of garbage that you get. Newspapers don’t act on every tip. News shows don’t air every inane quote. Journalists make subjective decisions about what is fit and what is not. Twitter and social media were created, in part, because people didn’t want gatekeepers calling garbage garbage.

Fact checking runs counter to Twitter’s DNA. That’s why Twitter will never fix this problem. But in typical Twitter fashion, it may create some more problems trying.

The fix, of course, must come from us. We all need to be more careful, responsible consumers of information. Government may be able to help with additional regulation, such as requiring social media companies to identify their users. Garbage and anonymity often can be found in the same neighborhood.

But even then, the onus will be on us. As a society, we’ve been slow to realize that in a world full of garbage, you have to be much more careful about what you’re fed.


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