Its stock price is tanking, its user growth is stagnating, it’s at war with conservative media, and it can’t even control its own earnings report. Yet BuzzFeed believes it has found the cause of Twitter’s problems — too much free speech, and too many white males.
In a long-form piece on their website, BuzzFeed reporter Charlie Warzel writes that Twitter’s biggest problem is its commitment to free speech, which interferes with efforts to combat so-called “abusers.”
Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority. On Twitter, abuse is not just a bug, but — to use the Silicon Valley term of art — a fundamental feature.
According to the writer, and to former engineering manager Leslie Miley, Twitter’s top staff can’t really understand online abuse. Why? Because they’re too white!
They were also limited by a workforce that multiple former employees say fundamentally didn’t understand what abuse looks and feels like. “The decision-makers were not people who got abuse and didn’t understand that it’s not about content, it’s about context,” Miley said. “If Twitter had people in the room who’d been abused on the internet — meaning not just straight, white males — when they were creating the company, I can assure you the service would be different.” A 2015 Women, Action, and the Media study revealed that, as of 2014, Twitter’s leadership was 79% male and 72% white.
This is pretty standard fare for Buzzfeed. The real problem behind the company’s gross double standards, inconsistent policies, and constant eroding of free speech — whiny Hollywood celebrities demanding crackdowns against their critics — is left to the very end of the article.
According to former employees, the external pressures — stagnant growth, media scrutiny, and constant personnel shifts — even created fissures in Twitter’s once rock-solid free speech defense. Shortly after news broke that Zelda Williams was leaving Twitter, Costolo was getting DMs and texts from Hollywood agents at firms like CAA, threatening to pull their high-profile celebrity clients off Twitter if Costolo didn’t stop harassment. Costolo scrambled, ordering teams to delete offending accounts and tweets. Weeks later, when a rash of beheading videos appeared, Costolo gave similar takedown orders, causing Twitter’s free speech advocates, Gabriel Stricker and Vijaya Gadde, to call an emergency policy meeting.
Inside the meeting, attended by Costolo, Stricker, Gadde, and product head Kevin Weil (now Instagram’s product lead) and first reported by BuzzFeed News, tensions rose as Costolo’s desire to build a more palatable network that was marketable and ultimately attractive to new users clashed with Stricker and Gadde’s desire for radically free expression.
“You really think we should have videos of people being murdered?” someone who attended the meeting recalls Costolo arguing, while Stricker reportedly compared Costolo’s takedown of undesirable content to deleting the Zapruder film after objections from the Kennedy family. Ultimately, the meeting ended with the group deciding to carve out policy exceptions to keep up grisly content for newsworthiness, according to one person present. Though Stricker and Gadde won, one source described a frustrated Costolo leaving in disagreement. “I think if you guys have your way the only people using Twitter will be ISIS and the ACLU,” Costolo said, according to this person.
“I think the pressure over user growth totally exacerbated Dick’s decision-making at this time,” the source told BuzzFeed News. “Looking back, it’s that ongoing part of the ad-hocracy — we can’t have big policy precedents being set by one person for one small scenario when nobody’s watching. Meanwhile, we have teams also talking with Russian and Turkish dictators asking us to censor the platform for them and we’re telling them to fuck off. There’s no continuity.”
Read the full article at BuzzFeed.