Monday, March 06, 2017

Twitter's New Censorship Tools Are The Pandora's Box: FUCK TWITTER

Twitter censored The 5th Estate and ignored warnings, their "millennial" brain-deads fantasising we would remain silent - and will now pay the price  

By Kalev Leetaru

Earlier this morning social media and the tech press lit up with reports of users across Twitter receiving half-day suspensions en masse as the platform abruptly rolled out its decade-overdue hate-speech filter to its platform. 

Twitter gives voice to ISIS terrorists while censoring
"mainstream media" critics 
The company has refused to provide details on specifically how the new system works, but using a combination of behavioral and keyword indicators, the filter flags posts it deems to be violations of Twitter’s acceptable speech policy and issues users suspensions of half a day during which they can only post to their followers. From the platform that once calleditself “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” these new tools mark an incredible turn of events for the company that just two years ago famously wrote Congress to say it would do everything in its power to uphold the right of alleged terrorists to post freely to its platform. 

What does Twitter’s new interest in hate speech tell us about the future of free speech online?

It was just a year ago that I wrote on this very site about Twitter’s evolution from bastion of free speech to global censor as it stepped back from its utopian dreams as they collided with the realities of running a commercial company. Yet, even after changing its official written policy on acceptable speech and touting that it would do more to fight abuse, little has changed over the past year. Indeed, from its inception a decade ago, Twitter has done little to address the problem of hateful and abusive speech on its platform.

That all changed this past fall when the company attempted to sell itself and suitor after suitor walked away, with several since apparently suggesting that their decision was at least in part due to concerns about Twitter’s role as a centerpiece of the online hate speech movement. Suddenly hate speech was a big deal to the company and it announced plans to invest heavily and swiftly in curtailing abusive posts and behavior.

Two different company spokespersons did not answer multiple queries as to why Twitter took few concrete steps to curtail abusive speech in the decade since its founding and then suddenly pivoted to tackle the issue after potential buyers suggested its lack of efforts played a role in the company’s inability to sell itself.

This is intriguing in that it reinforces the role economic realities play vis-à-vis free speech and the resources that Internet companies expend in addressing abusive use of their platforms. In short, one might imagine that if Facebook’s major advertisers all banded together and pulled all of their ads until the company improved the way it addresses violence on its platform that major efforts would likely be launched overnight.

When I reached out for comment, a company spokesperson was quick to emphasize that no single keyword will cause a tweet to be flagged under the new system and that it uses a mixture of both linguistic and behavioral signals to identify what it deems to be abusive accounts. Such hybrid approaches are far more effective than simple keyword-based filters that can readily be confused by even the most simplistic of contexts like sarcasm.

Twitter suspends The 5th Estate news feed following complaints by CNN

Yet, the concern here is that Twitter has thus far refused to provide further detail into at least the broad contours of the indicators it is using, especially when it comes to the particular linguistic cues it is concerned with. While offering too much detail might give the upper hand to those who would try to work around the new system, it is important for the broader community to have at least some understanding of the kinds of language flagged by Twitter’s new tool so that they can offer more informed feedback to help it shape that tool given that both algorithms and people are far from infallible. Simply rolling out a new tool that begins suspending users without warning or recourse and without any visibility into how those decisions are being made is a textbook example of how not to roll such a feature out to a user community in that the tool instantly becomes confrontational rather than educational.

Moreover, it is unclear why Twitter chose not to permit users to contest what they believe to be a wrongful suspension. 

The company did not respond to a request for comment on why suspended users are not provided a button to appeal a suspension they believe is due to algorithmic or human error or lack of contextual understanding. 

Given that the feature is brand-new and bound to encounter plenty of unforeseen contexts where it could yield a wrong result, it is surprising that Twitter chose not to provide a recovery mechanism where it could catch these before they become news.

One could ultimately argue that when it comes to throwing hateful insults at other users or threatening violence against them, Twitter’s new approach to actively flagging and immediately suspending users could have a profound impact on causing them to self-censor and reducing the overall prevalence of hate speech on the platform.

However, it is critically important to draw a distinction between speech and the ideas being expressed through that speech. 

I have personally observed senior and highly respected faculty at top-ranking universities throw civil discourse out the window and hurl common insults, profanity and threats of violence against each other in Twitter conversations that became overheated. Indeed this general coarsening of language and retreat of civil discourse has been a common denominator in the toxification of social media. Whereas two prestigious professors sitting together on a panel at an academic conference might lob heated criticisms at each other, they are likely to do so using the clinical and thesaurus-ified world of academia, arguing about the specific methods or conclusions they disagree with. Toss those two professors into the midst of a Twitter argument and all that fancy language tends to go right out the door, replaced by the common insults and name calling one would expect from a pack of 10-year-olds.

Could Twitter reshape the norms of social media by permitting unrestricted topical selection, but restraining the kinds of words and behavior we use to express those topics? In essence, restoring us to an era of civil discourse where we can fervently disagree with one another, but if we chose to engage with those holding different views we must do so using the clinical language of debate rather than the emotional and diatribe-filled language of daily life. In doing so, however, would this change the very nature of social expression and the role of social media in acting as an extension of self?

The question of censoring speech versus ideas is not an idle one. Many outlets this morning picked up on a frightening instance of the Twitter algorithm’s new power to police not only the language we use but the thoughts we express. In this case a user allegedly tweeted a response to a news report about comments made by Senator John McCain and argued that it was his belief that the senator was a “traitor” who had committed formal treason against the nation. 

Twitter did not respond to a request for more information about what occurred in this case and if this was indeed the tweet that caused the user to be suspended, but did not dispute that the user had been suspended or that his use of the word “traitor” had factored heavily into that suspension.

In the absence of clarifying detail from Twitter it is impossible to know why the company chose to suspend this user and whether that suspension was based on this single tweet, but the mere possibility that it could be is frightening from the standpoint of freedom of expression in the United States. Here in the U.S. it has been a long-standing tradition that any citizen may criticize their elected officials even in strong terms without the risk of being silenced. 

Even legal concepts like libel make special accommodation for accusations against public figures like politicians that bear on their official duties. However, in some countries criticism of the government is actually illegal and can result in harsh prison sentences even for a first offense.

If Twitter really did suspend a user for criticizing a politician and exercising his free speech rights to argue that he believes that that politician broke the law, that presents a frightening, dystopian "1984" world in which criticism of the state could be simply wiped from existence. Imagine anyone who posted any comments critical of an elected official being suspended from Twitter and potentially banned outright with all their posts deleted. It is not hard to imagine governments throughout the world exploring how they, too, could force Twitter to eliminate critical speech and given that Twitter now has a production deployed tool, it can no longer argue that adding such filters would pose insurmountable technical challenges.

"Mommeee.... The 5th Estate is being mean to us... MAKE TBEM STOP!"

In short, while better than previous efforts, the way in which Twitter has rolled out this new system and the potential for its abuse by governments, companies and others to stifle legitimate criticism has opened Pandora’s box and moved us a giant leap towards the end of free speech just when we need it more than ever.

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