J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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A Few Thoughts on Twitter

Posted by chanders on January 27, 2012

Much like Dave Winer, I found myself getting tripped up by the 140-character limit when trying to discuss the obviously complicated issue of Twitter’s new “filtering” policy. So I decided to follow his lead and sketch my thoughts out a little more precisely.

1. I actually have no problem with what Twitter did. Indeed, given the constraints they were under, this is probably the best possible policy they could come up with (as Zeynep Tufekci argues well here). But, it’s foolish to imagine that this decision will not have particular (and possibly bad) consequences.

2. The biggest possible consequence will be that it is easier now for despotic regimes to view Twitter censorship decisions through the lens of Western values and U.S. foreign policy, and to argue to their populations that this is the case. Take this comment by Jillian C. York to get an idea of what I mean:

It seems that Twitter’s goal is to minimize censorship globally while adhering to local laws when necessary. In other words, I highly doubt they’ll start censoring tweets in Turkey, but given a court order from the UK, they might.

Well, why? I mean, what’s the difference? The only distinction I can see is if someone argues that either (a) the legal apparatus of Turkey is illegitimate, or (b) their culturally-laden speech-values do not align with ours. Ambiguity, in this case, allows repressive governments to treat Twitter like they’ve treated it all along: as an arm of Western imperialism. This time, though, they’re in a stronger position to make the argument.

3. While I don’t judge Twitter for their new policy, I do find their moralistic posturing irritating and hypocritical. I mean, come on; to announce, under a banner headline, that “tweets must still flow” and then go on to say that they won’t flow quite like they used to (one year and one day after the Egyptian uprising) is obnoxious. Its obvious that Twitter acumulated a great deal of cultural capital amongst Silicon Valley’s libertarian digerati  for their stand throughout most of 2011, both in regard to the Wikileaks subpoenas and the Arab Spring uprisings. But: non-market values are, in the long run, incompatible with the logic of the market, and what Twitter is trying to do now is reconcile what it believes with what the market needs it to do. Bottom line: I don’t believe that companies has “values” in any meaningful sense, and this is where I disagree most with smart folks like Alex Howard.

4. And the @eff is just weak. As I noted earlier, what is the point of the EFF if they are just going to discuss this change in terms of “realpolitik” and “conformity to actually existing laws.” I mean, what’s the point of a transnational NGO if they don’t spend all of their time saying things like “laws be dammed! We have principles gosh darn it, and we are going to stand by them!!” Human Rights Watch does this sort of thing all the time, which is one of the things about them that is simultaneously so inspiring and annoying. I can go to the US State Department for realpolitik.

So, to sum up:

  • Twitter is a company, so stop with the Hamlet-esque moralizing.
  • For better or worse, Twitter has made it easier for foreign governments to dismiss what it does, if, ineed, it does something that foreign government don’t like.
  • And hey, EFF: lame.

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