Twitter Public Policy Director On How Company Monitors Content
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Twitter says it's cleaning up the conversation. The social media platform recently eliminated millions of fake accounts.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And Carlos Monje, Twitter's head of public policy, says Twitter also blocked accounts linked to Iran.
CARLOS MONJE: They were trying to manipulate the conversation on Twitter, and that's why we suspended them. It was about 700 accounts, about a hundred of those pretending to be American. They were small relative to what we saw in 2016, but they were growing and they were building for the longer term.
INSKEEP: Twitter says it's targeting deceptive actors as the 2018 election nears. It's under scrutiny. Next week, a Senate committee questions CEO Jack Dorsey.
MARTIN: Twitter is at the heart of the debate over our public debate. It's where the president routinely makes false claims, including saying true stories are fake. It's where his critics sometimes overreact to the latest news. Millions of bots, automated accounts, have spread extreme statements.
INSKEEP: When Twitter's Carlos Monje came by to take our questions, he insisted the company is getting better at spotting fake identities. What's trickier, for a platform devoted to free speech, is what to do about false ideas.
Why was Twitter slower than other social media platforms to move against the noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones?
MONJE: We have a terms of service that we work on and think about every day. We think it's important for all voices to be heard as long as those voices aren't trying to silence those of others. We were able to action his account after he broke our rules.
INSKEEP: You gave him a time-out for a week.
MONJE: We gave him a time-out because there was a threat of violence, right? And we try very hard to implement our rules in a dispassionate way. When people do break our rules, we will action them.
INSKEEP: He's back on.
MONJE: He is.
INSKEEP: Is he doing any better?
MONJE: We're watching all the accounts, and we get tons of reports across the board. So we'll keep an eye on his activity.
INSKEEP: I went, before this interview, and had a look at the Alex Jones Twitter account, and something in the last number of hours that he's put out there is, quote, "genocide against white farmers taking place in South Africa." Now, that's false, and there are fact-checking organizations that have looked into that and found that there is no evidence for that. There is an underlying issue that can be debated about land in South Africa. There's something going on. But he makes a false charge about genocide, and he amplifies it on Twitter, and it's a charge that is commonly made by white supremacists to whip up racial anxiety. Is that appropriate for Twitter?
MONJE: We want to make sure that we allow a venue for all voices to come out. If somebody breaks the law, if somebody engages in hateful conduct, if somebody calls for violence or uses racial slurs, those are things that we think are beyond the pale, and we'll take you off the platform.
INSKEEP: But what about that particular example? It's not exactly a racial slur. He didn't use the N-word. He probably did something that was worse.
MONJE: You know what we've found is that when something like that happens, when there's a falsehood that comes out on the platform, the rest of the platform and folks who actually know what's actually going on swamp the falsehood with truth. And we've seen that over and over again. It happened after the Boston Marathon bombing when there was a rumor out that they had caught the shooter. When Gabby Giffords was shot, it was actually the hospital that said no, in fact, she was still alive. The platform can be a tremendous force for getting the actual truth out there. And deleting a tweet doesn't delete the ideology behind it. And we think it's important to have a space where these sometimes terrible ideas can come forward and be challenged in the public and in the open.
INSKEEP: People sometimes come on this program and express a racist idea. And it's important to talk about it because it's out there. I would agree with that. But if I'm in an interview and you say something that is false or racist, it's on me. It's my responsibility in presenting that to the audience to give people enough information that they can understand what it is. Do you have any responsibility when Alex Jones or any number of people puts out false information, or is that purely on other users on the platform to point that out?
MONJE: We take our responsibility extremely seriously, and that's to have a place that supports the public conversation - right? - and to set up a place where people can feel safe sharing their opinions and people can find out what's happening and talk about it. If we get to a position where we're putting the thumb on the scales on any side of any issue, it doesn't serve that public conversation. It isn't that all speech is OK. It's that the rollicking, small-D democratic debate is something that we treasure and spend a lot of time thinking about - how do we enable that healthy debate to continue on our platform?
INSKEEP: What do you think about when you go to work at this company - and I'm sure you're proud to work for Twitter - and you must hear the comments of people who use Twitter, who rely on Twitter, who like certain aspects of Twitter but nevertheless describe Twitter as a cesspool? What do you think about when you hear that?
MONJE: I think we have the most incredible engineers anywhere, who, if we tell them to aim at a challenge, they'll get there. We know we're doing better than we were. We can see it in the numbers that we see internally, the reduced number of abuse reports. Our work's never going to be done because the bad guys always shift their tactics.
INSKEEP: So you've told me how you respond, how you're trying to make the conversation better. But I want to come back to that word, cesspool, because people use it. Why do you think it is that people who use your service, who know your service, commonly describe it as a cesspool?
MONJE: You know, we have made a bunch of changes to our platform - 20 30 policy changes just in the last year.
INSKEEP: Well, you're talking about changes. I get you want to talk about changes...
MONJE: Yeah. Yeah.
INSKEEP: But why do you think it is that people view Twitter that way, people who use it?
MONJE: I think we need to do a better job explaining all the different ways that we give our users more control over their experience. If you don't want to see a conversation, if you don't want to hear from a user, you can mute them. You can block them. You can report them. Twitter really is working to take that bad stuff that you're talking about...
INSKEEP: But what is it that causes the actual problem? Are you saying it's purely human nature, that's how humanity is? Is there something about social media that is bringing out the worst in people? What makes certain aspects of this otherwise very useful conversation so very bad?
MONJE: You know, I go back to the example of what was a hard day, I think, for me and for a lot of people here in the U.S., which was the Charlottesville rallies, right?
MONJE: We saw a lot of bad people...
INSKEEP: Around the Robert E. Lee statue. A woman was killed. Right.
MONJE: A really, really, really, you know, difficult day, seeing Tiki torches on the streets, seeing people spew hate on the streets of America, right? And we saw that reflected on Twitter in that a very, very small minority of users came out and said terrible things. But what we also saw, in the country and online and on our platform, is the rest of civil society coming out and rejecting it firmly and flatly and saying, this is not who we are.
INSKEEP: Is there something special about social media that brings out the worst in people?
MONJE: I don't think so.
INSKEEP: Do you think who we are on social media is actually just pretty much who we are?
MONJE: I think people come to Twitter to find out what's happening in the world and to talk about it, right? It is a rollicking debate.
INSKEEP: Carlos Monje of Twitter. Thanks for coming by.
MONJE: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.