“I ENGAGED WITH TWITTER DURING THE LAST FEDERAL ELECTION, as my interest in the party positions grew, but there’s been so much vileness tolerated on that platform that I’ve decided to just delete my account,” a friend from Montreal told me recently.
It’s a sentiment one increasingly encounters, especially among Millennials. Perhaps more serious are those refraining from joining Twitter in the first place as a result of all the well publicized high-profile personal attacks on Twitter in this past year – one of the likely causes of the company’s inability to grow its market share to the degree it had hoped. As former CEO, Dick Costolo put it last year, “We suck at dealing with abuse.”
All of this forms an important lesson for Canada and its politics, still early into a new federal government phase. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had used social media masterfully during the last election campaign, summoning a few million new voters as a result. Others political parties, even Senate members, are engaging along similar lines
Yet the “rules of engagement” with social media for a successful link between citizens and their representatives are still being developed and not all the experience has been hopeful. Twitter especially, once a favoured tool for rapid fire political engagement, has also been the preferred instrument for permitting hatred, racism, and intolerance into what was supposed to be a more positive experience of politics in the public space.
Only a decade ago, the introduction of Twitter, along with Facebook, blogging, and digital comment sections supposedly presented a new, more exciting method for engaging Canadians. There had been the growing belief that traditional institutions were reticent to take such risks and these new forms of communications sprang up in the belief that average people could share their opinions and ideas in the public space. Living with such amenities for the last few years, however, has also introduced us to the understanding that such venues which have few rules for engagement can often sink to the lowest level of participants – trolls, stalkers, haters, even the hyper-partisans. Twitter especially has been embroiled in all the controversy.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. As complaints against the company over its permissive abuse policy have mounted, Twitter executives, especially CEO Jack Dorsey, appear less than pro-active when it comes to user complaints regarding abuse. Writing in the New York Times Insider last week, John Weisman reported he just quit Twitter (he had 35,000 followers) as a result of the following note he received from the company: “We are unable to take action given that we could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter rules.” This was all he received after being attacked for months with anti-Semitic comments, Nazi iconography, photos of the gates of Aushwitz, and worse. Following many requests for action from Twitter, and the rather milquetoast response mentioned above, he pulled the plug. The relationship is over, as it increasingly is for thousands of others.
Within the administration ranks of Twitter there has been a cost as well. The resignation last week of its head of consumer product division, Jeff Seibert, has merely been the latest of such departures. Its four co-founders each pushed one another out, according to Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair. He goes on to list other recent resignations at senior management levels.
Much of the turbulence has been around the company’s underwhelming abuse policies and the growing effect that approach is having on Twitter’s brand. Perhaps the outer rancor is a direct byproduct of the inner management turmoil – Twitter’s own DNA. As Bilton effectively chronicled CEO Dorsey’s stubbornness and sadness over the loss of close friends and co-workers and their refusal to now speak to one another: “It was such a good team. It just became screwy, and confusing. I don’t know what happened. I don’t regret it. I feel sad about it.” Perhaps the inability to feel regret is part of the problem.
The importance of social media to the national political conversation and to politics itself is irrefutable. Yet should the venues of that online dialogue produce more rancor than refinement, more umbrage than understanding, then the opportunity for citizens to have effect on the issues that matter to them will be diminished. Fortunately some online venues are placing more rigor within their comment practices, leaving citizens to engender meaningful exchanges. But as long as huge firms like Twitter remain lax in their accountability policies, the danger to our political estate remains worrisome.
For years we witnessed Ottawa’s Question Period become a source of national embarrassment. If citizens, then, in their efforts at political engagement on social media, participate in disturbing practices far worse than even the House of Commons would condone, then both sides of the democratic equation – citizens and their elected representatives – will equally share blame for the decline of our public estate.