Twitter officials head to Capitol Hill to discuss spread of fake news

Sharp Things CEO and Former Head of News Government & Elections at Twitter Adam Sharp appears on CBSN to discuss congressional hearings on the spread of "fake news" online.  

Transcript

Anne-Marie Green

Today, Twitter officials will head to Capital Hill to discuss how false information and hoax tweets were able to spread after the Florida school massacre in February. This comes as Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, is addressing the need for change on the social media site. The company's leaders will meet with Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and talk about an incident where tweets were made to look like they came from a reporter's account, and another where tweets spread a fake Miami Herald story.

Anne-Marie Green

So, Adam Sharp was previously the head of news, government and elections at Twitter. He is now the CEO and founder of the company, Sharp Things, and joins us now.

Adam Sharp

Good morning.

Anne-Marie Green

Good morning. So Twitter is so confounding. It's different than Facebook and it's different than YouTube, where they can perhaps yank it off, a fake news story or an offensive video. Twitter, these tweets come fast and furious, and I was stunned by the bots that took advantage of the Parkland shooting, how quickly it happened and how quickly people shared those tweets after this discussion, this yearlong discussion about fake news and being manipulated. We fell for it again.

Anne-Marie Green

Can we talk about that? Talk about how they were able to take advantage of this national tragedy so quickly and start spewing out these hoax tweets.

Adam Sharp

So, right off the bat it's important to consider that Twitter's power is that it's essentially live television with an infinite number of channels. So, it's very difficult to police, even if everything goes right. A tweet goes out that violates rules. Someone reports it. It gets taken down, and that all happens very quickly.

Adam Sharp

Everyone who's going to see that, or that almost everyone who's going to see that tweet, probably already has. So it's very difficult to unring that bell, even when a tweet violates the rules.

Adam Sharp

In this incident in Florida, what had happened was, a Miami Herald reporter had been tweeting saying, "Hey, are there eye witnesses to this shooting? I'm trying to look for people for my reporting."

Anne-Marie Green

Right.

Adam Sharp

And some actors had taken her tweets, modified them in Photoshop and then posted pictures of what they claimed to be tweets saying, "Hey, does anyone have pictures of dead bodies? Was the shooter awake?" For example.

Adam Sharp

So, it looked like it came from her, but if you went to her real account, it wasn't from her. So, that's very easy to do, happens very quickly, doesn't actually violate Twitter's policies at the moment, though the company says they're looking at that, and by the time you catch it, it's already out there. It's in the bloodstream, and people are responding to it.

Anne-Marie Green

That's interesting, 'cause that's not even a bot. That's nothing that takes some complicated software. That's somebody sort of cutting and pasting, using their artistic skills for very bad reasons.

Adam Sharp

Yeah, the Microsoft Paint and an old version of Windows can do this.

Anne-Marie Green

Geez Louise, so you know, Twitter has sort of talked about what they want to be, that they don't want to be an arbiter of truth, but they also don't want to spread lies. There's this fine line for them, determining what is expression versus what is the type of expression that is damaging. What sort of factors does Twitter consider when they yank a tweet down?

Adam Sharp

Right now they have very detailed rules that are up on the website that say what is permissible and what is not. Over the last year, particularly since the election, they have gotten a lot more detailed about what is not permitted.

Adam Sharp

It's important to note that the law to date, written before any of these companies existed, actually gives these companies broad immunity. They have really no responsibility for content on their platforms whatsoever.

Adam Sharp

While many agree that the companies have to step up and take more responsibility, things get tricky when you say, "Where does that line go, and do you want a private company, in San Francisco, determining the standards of what is proper speech in the United States or around the world?"

Anne-Marie Green

Right. It's not illegal to lie on Twitter.

Adam Sharp

No, it's not illegal.

Anne-Marie Green

It's not illegal to lie. Right.

Adam Sharp

It's not a courtroom.

Anne-Marie Green

Right. Jack Dorsey, you know, has sort of like appealed for people to essentially, "Can you just behave better. Would you say this in front of your mother?" And that's kind of like, almost the best that he can do. What does a healthy Twitter actually look like?

Adam Sharp

Well, we've see it with the Me Too movement. We saw it with the Black Lives Matter and Arab Spring. A healthy Twitter, a healthy Facebook, are platforms where strangers who have shared ideals and shared interests can bond together, can communicate and can organize. It eliminates borders. It eliminates distance. It eliminates socio-economic differences and provides for conversation.

Adam Sharp

That, I think, is true of what's a good Twitter and what's a good society, but in both places you have those who don't want to see that conversation happen, and then take advantage of the rules of the community to do that.

Anne-Marie Green

Right. So some lawmakers are saying, "Look, let's step in. We'll step in then and help you with this problem." But when we talk about passing laws that essentially limit expression, I can't sort of believe that it would be constitutional anyways. But what can be the potential fallout of Congress getting involved?

Adam Sharp

Right off the bat, Congress does not have a great track record at designing software. So, I don't think you want to see a congressional committee deciding what the next version of Facebook or Twitter will look like.

Adam Sharp

Second, less than half of the users of Twitter or Facebook are even in the United States. So the moment the companies show that they can respond to one government standards of what should be allowed in that country or not, what happens in places like Turkey and Egypt and other places around the world where there are leaders who might want to say, "You know what? In my country, I want the line over here. No criticism of me and my allies." So it becomes a very slippery slope, very quickly.

Anne-Marie Green

So Adam, do you think that the real remedy has to do with educating us, the consumers, that if there is no appetite for this sort of fake news, fake tweets, that we'll see less of it?

Adam Sharp

Exactly. The reason it is successful is because we have built an entire economy around, what are you most likely to retweet, to like, to reshare on Facebook.

Anne-Marie Green

Right.

Adam Sharp

So we need to take some responsibility for that ourselves, because when you like something without even reading it, it's more likely to spread and that's how the fake new operators succeed.

Adam Sharp

Facebook actually did an experiment, where when a fact checker had challenged a story, they put a little red flag on it, saying, "A reputable organization says this is fake." And it actually increased the number of people clicking through, because once they saw the flag, they said, "Oh, this must be juicy."

Anne-Marie Green

Oh, come on people.

Adam Sharp

The false anonymous stars that's in ourselves.

Anne-Marie Green

Yeah, yeah, please. My thing with this whole conversation is that, it has a lot to do with us. These social media site are just a reflection of our society. If we don't like what we're seeing, then we should change the conversation. I feel like we can do more than, you know, these companies can do. And lawmakers, certainly.

Adam Sharp

Exactly.

Anne-Marie Green

Adam Sharp, thank you so much.

Adam Sharp

Thank you, Anne-Marie.