Facing criticism on Capitol Hill Twitter defends its platform

Sharp Things CEO and Former Head of News Government & Elections at Twitter Adam Sharp appears on CBSN to discuss Capitol Hill testimony by the social giant's CEO Jack Dorsey.  

Transcript

Anne-Marie Green

All right. So both Facebook and Twitter gave testimonies on Capitol Hill yesterday about interference on their platforms during the 2016 Presidential Election. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, fielded questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Vladimir Duthiers

He was asked how the company will stop bots, hate speech and fake accounts from spreading. The committee also wanted to know what Twitter is doing to keep its users safe.

Vladimir Duthiers

Joining us is Adam Sharp, he's the former head of government and politics at Twitter. Welcome back.

Adam Sharp

Thank you [inaudible 00:00:28]

Vladimir Duthiers

So what exactly is Congress trying to do to regulate social media platforms like Twitter? What should those regulations more importantly look like?

Adam Sharp

Well, they're not really doing much to regulate. They're having a lot of hearings but not actual actions.

Vladimir Duthiers

Should they regulate?

Adam Sharp

I think so. The problem is everyone seems to agree; Republicans, Democrats, even the companies, that when content and behaviors cross the line, the companies should do more. But there's two problems with that. Number one, the current law says the companies have no such responsibility. In fact, they're absolved of any responsibility and that their responsibility under the law is to drive value to their shareholders. That's a mixed message only Congress can address.

Adam Sharp

The second is, we talk about what the company should do when something crosses the line. Crosses the line. Where's the line? Who decides where the line goes? Nobody wants to be the one to set that line because like Potter Stewart in that landmark pornography case, it's very subjective. "I know it when I see it."

Adam Sharp

These platforms, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are now a public space for discourse, so any line you draw is limiting someone's freedom of speech. My view is, a private corporation should not be the one deciding what the First Amendment means in modern civility and discourse.

Anne-Marie Green

Well, they've already-

Adam Sharp

That should be elected officials. That should be the courts.

Anne-Marie Green

They've already received ... I mean recently a lot of pushback with the Conservatives saying that they feel like they're being censored on these platforms. The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, was somewhat introspective during his testimony and he talked about rethinking the structure and the philosophy of Twitter. Let's just listen to what he had to say.

Jack Dorsey

Twelve years ago, we had this concept of followers and we made the number of followers big and bold in a very simple but noticeable font. Just that decision alone has incentivized people to want to grow that number, to increase that number. The question we're now asking is that necessarily the right incentive? Is the number of followers you have really a proxy for how much you contribute to Twitter and to this digital public square?

Anne-Marie Green

So that seems huge. I mean, the assumption is that if you have a tremendous amount of followers, then you must have greater value. Your Voice be more important and more influential. This is a shift in philosophy for Twitter.

Adam Sharp

Well, it's certainly a shift in how they present it publicly, but this question of does follower count really matter?

Anne-Marie Green

Does it count? Does the count count?

Adam Sharp

Has been at the forefront for years. You know, there's always been this understanding that actual engagement is a better measure. Total number of impressions. If people go into their Twitter dashboards, they can see how many people actually saw the tweet. I remember very early on in my time at Twitter, 2010, 2011, a colleague had done a study of pastors on Twitter around the country who were tweeting just religious affirmations every morning and reaching an audience bigger than Oprah Winfrey at the time, just because of those retweets and what was then called favorites-

Anne-Marie Green

[crosstalk 00:03:50].

Adam Sharp

... spreading that message.

Vladimir Duthiers

So Senator Susan Collins had a concern about what you're kind of talking about, which is the influence of some of the messages that get posted on social media. I want to play a little bit of what she had to say when she found out she was on a list of people who were targeted, targeted officials.

Susan Collins

Well, I learned, not from Twitter, but from Clemson university that I was one of those targeted leaders and that there were 279 Russian generated tweets that targeted me, that had gone to as many as 363,000 followers.

Vladimir Duthiers

So I mean she's sort of asking what can be done for people that are even targeted. I mean, I don't think that if you sent a letter through ... Maybe it's what you're saying, right? If you sent a letter targeting someone to her office, you'd go to jail because you're using the federal postal system, right, and you can't do that. What can be done when Twitter and people on Twitter are targeting officials or anybody?

Adam Sharp

Well, we should also be clear in using the word targeting that in this context, these were not necessarily threats of physical violence against the senator. They were things saying, "Oh, if she votes against Betsy Devos to be Education Secretary, we're going to vote her out of office" and so on. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Susan Collins, a moderate Republican senator, would have been a target here just as Senator John McCain was, Lisa Murkowski was because they were the swing votes. What has changed is really just the tactics of it. This sort of astro-turfing, as we call it, the fake grassroots movement of creating a bunch of fake accounts and tweets that to Susan Collins, who's searching for her name on the platform, may look like a bunch of constituents being outraged and urging her to go one way or another, even if no one else sees it on Twitter, that could have influence on the vote.

Adam Sharp

It's not that much different than if you'd had an organized letter writing campaign a generation ago, but the tools have changed. It's become a lot less expensive and a lot easier for foreign actors to drive these messages.

Vladimir Duthiers

[crosstalk 00:06:05].

Anne-Marie Green

Man, that's super interesting.

Vladimir Duthiers

Yeah.

Anne-Marie Green

Astro-turfing.

Vladimir Duthiers

Astro-turfing.

Anne-Marie Green

Learned something new. Adam Sharp thank you so much.

Adam Sharp

Thank you.