Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey shocked the business world earlier this Monday after announcing his resignation from the board of the company. Dorsey also revealed that Parag Agrawal will replace him as CEO. Twitter has been at the center of the discussion over the power of Big Tech over the public discourse, with conservatives denouncing the companies for censoring them in the name of a fight against misinformation. If Parag Agrawals’ previous views on the subject are any indication, Twitter will not relax its regulations towards speech policing, and if anything, they would be worst.
The new head of Twitter made his views on Big Tech speech regulation (or the fight against misinformation, depending on who you ask) in an interview for the MIT’s podcast “EM Tech MIT” on November 18, 2020, where he made it very clear that a focus on fact and maintaining the free speech principle embodied in the First Amendment is not the main objective of Twitter’s strategy to fight “misinformation”.
Parag Agrawal thinks Twitter should “not to be bound by the First Amendment”
The calls for Big tech to regulate speech have increased since 2016, after the dual electoral shocks of Donald Trump’s victory and Brexit. Usually, politicians and regulators tend to use the word “misinformation” as the central objective of any strategy by Big Tech to moderate speech. Arguably, a fight against misinformation would be heavily focused on determining what is fact and what is fiction, however, Agrawal’s interview makes it clear that Twitter goes beyond the truth.
During the interview, Agrawal is asked repeatedly about what type of standards is the company using to determine what should be considered to be misinformation and what not. Twitter’s new CEO said that: “Defining misinformation is really, really hard. As we learn through time, our understanding of truth also evolves (…) So, we focused way less on what’s true and what’s false. We focus way more on the potential for harm as a result of certain content being amplified on the platform without appropriate context’
Argawal argues that Twitter doesn’t “get to decide what people choose to believe, but we do get to showcase content and a diversity of points of views on any topic so that people can make their own determination”.
The new head of Twitter then assures that “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.”
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The logical question would then be what does Twitter consider to be having a harmful effect on the public conversation, although Agrawal does not clearly define it, he does lend a view on the way Twitter operates in this issue. When discussing the fringe conspiracy theory group QAnon influence on Twitter, Agrawal said “we work with civil services and human rights groups across the globe in trying to understand which groups, or which organizations, or what kind of activity rises to a level of harm where it requires action from us.”
In summary, during the interview, Agrawal defines Twitter’s role in the public debate as one that while not trying to influence people’s opinion or determining what is true or not, it is clearly deciding which speech is harmful and which one is acceptable, usually with the help of outside organizations.
The troubling contradictions in Agrawal’s view on truth, public discourse and Big Tech censorship
There are many concerning issues with Agrawal’s view of Twitter’s role in the public square. The clear one is that by emphasizing “potential harm” rather than in factual truth as the key pillar of Twitter’s content policy, users will be left at the complete mercy of whatever Twitter defines as potentially harmful at a given moment, a concept that can change throughout time.
What would happen if Twitter decides that espousing conservative views that were mainstream a couple of years ago create potential harm for Agrawal’s nebulous definition of a healthy public conversation? If facts themselves are not the golden standard to keep or remove content, what are they? What if Twitter decides tomorrow that claims of unfair business practices or bad working conditions at their company are “potentially harmful”?
Agrawal argues that he does not want to force people on what to believe, however, his views directly contradict that statement. By deciding what is bad for the public conversation, he is having a heavy influence on the way people think and debate, and by removing facts from the equation he is leaving the door wide open to impose whatever subjective believes he, Twitter, or some of the third-party organizations have in the public debate.
Agrawal might say that Twitter does not want to be an arbiter of truth, that might be correct. However, he is proposing something far more nefarious: deciding what is good speech and what is bad speech, regardless of fact.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.