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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Twitter’s move to 280 characters highlights tech industry’s hubris

User anger is rising at tech giants seen as benefitting from hate-speech

Twitter users experienced outages on April 17. Reuters
Twitter users experienced outages on April 17. Reuters

It’s possible that some day we’ll look back on the past week as the point in history where the global backlash against technology companies really picked up steam.

As innocuous as it may seem now, the spark that could end up at the centre of it all is Twitter’s announcement last Tuesday that it is experimenting with longer tweets.

Some users, the company says, will be allowed to post messages with 280 characters instead of the 140 that has been standard since the social media service launched in 2006.

A Twitter manager justified the move in a blog post by pointing out that about 9 per cent of English language tweets were running into the 140-character limit. “We fell in love with this new, still brief constraint,” she wrote of the change to 280 characters.

Some brevity-challenged users cheered the news, but they were drowned out by the volume of negative reactions. Many argued that what Twitter needs to do is place more limits, not fewer, on what users can do, especially when it comes to hate speech.

Although Twitter tightened its rules on hate speech and abuse in February, its critics claim the company is doing nowhere near enough to delete racist, homophobic and sexist tweets or to ban those who post them. In August, an activist spray-painted abusive messages on the ground outside the company’s offices in Hamburg in an attempt to draw attention to the problem.

While taking action against some extreme offenders, Twitter in the main steadfastly insists in free speech, no matter what. Indeed, with its move to 280 characters, it is giving miscreants twice as much room to spew venom.

Potentially worse still, the company has also refused to take action against US President Donald Trump for repeatedly breaking its guidelines, which prohibit “threats of violence or promote violence.”

For weeks, the president has been making nuclear threats against North Korea and its leaders, but Twitter refuses to suspend his account on the grounds that his posts – no matter how dangerous or destabilizing – are “newsworthy”.

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It’s easy to read between the lines of that justification. Mr Trump’s tweets keep people talking about Twitter – they’re like the good ratings he’s fond of – so why would Twitter ban him? The real question is whether he actually is good for Twitter’s ratings. A quick glance at the company’s key metrics suggest Mr Trump and the other hate-spewers who use Twitter without consequences are actually very bad for business.

Usage growth has been stalled for years, with the company reporting 328 million active users in its most recent quarter, unchanged from the preceding quarter. Advertising revenue, meanwhile, decreased 8 per cent year-on-year. Shares have tanked 26 per cent over the past year and 35 per cent since its initial public offering in 2013.

Twitter has been a struggling company for many years now, but there’s mounting evidence that a number of similarly tone-deaf Silicon Valley tech titans are also heading for big trouble.

Facebook and Google are now drawing new attention from governments and regulators on recent revelations that both allowed, and therefore profited from, racist ads on their respective platforms.

Coupled with the fact that both companies were also complicit in allowing the spread of fake news, which looks to have affected a number of elections and referenda around the world, it’s no wonder that sentiments toward the companies are souring.

Uber had its operating license suspended in London last week after authorities ruled its “approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility”. The ride-sharing company also said it is pulling out of Quebec after officials in the Canadian province demanded better training for drivers. Both situations are just the latest in a long list of clashes between Uber and various governments. They’re also not unlike the increasingly loud chatter in a number of regions about potentially forcing break-ups of Google and Facebook, or at least increasing scrutiny of the two tech majors.

Put it all together and a clear pattern is emerging. After more than a decade of runaway growth, governments and regulators around the world are finally stepping in to impose some supervision on these increasingly powerful companies.

What’s even more interesting, if Twitter’s continued decline can be used as a barometer, is that public support for broader oversight also looks to be growing. Indeed, recent polls in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, suggest exactly that. Whether the view is correct or not, there’s a growing realisation among the general population that technology companies have profited immensely at the expense of larger society.

Collectively, the companies have introduced countless new conveniences, capabilities and efficiencies, but there’s a perception that the tradeoff may have increased economic inequality and – even more worryingly – the heightening of global instability.

Twitter has thus done the absolute wrong thing at the wrong time. By giving even more runway to some of the sources of that instability for reasons that are transparently profit-driven, it has become the veritable poster child for everything that’s wrong with technology companies today.

No one should be surprised when the hammer comes down on them.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species

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