Mon, Mar 05, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Twitter cannot engineer healthy conversations

Technological solutions to the ills of social media Twitter and Facebook have considered ignore the obvious problem of easy access

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg

Facebook’s self-regulatory contortions in the wake of “fake news” and trolling scandals have gone on, with little visible effect, for months.

Now Twitter founder and chief executive Jack Dorsey has announced his company is going to try a different tack — but Dorsey’s approach is arguably even more far-fetched than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s: It is an attempt to view Twitter’s social mess as an engineering problem.

Dorsey on Thursday last week on Twitter said that the medium has been home to “abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” and that it is not proud of how it has dealt with them, so it would try to find a “holistic” solution through attempting to “measure the ‘health’ of conversation on Twitter.”

The metrics, designed in collaboration with outside experts, would presumably help redesign the service so that all the bad stuff would be gone without the need for censorship.

That is not how Facebook chose to handle a similar problem.

For starters, it did not ask anyone for advice: Zuckerberg’s listening tour of the US does not count because he did not specify as clearly as Dorsey what he was looking for.

Facebook just devised a number of possible solutions, such as working with fact-checkers to identify “fake news” and focusing on content from friends rather than publishers; it even experimented with putting publishers’ content in a separate newsfeed — a test it has just ended, because users apparently did not want two feeds. It has also volunteered to reveal more information about who bought political ads.

It is not clear whether these moves have done anything to fix the problems: I still have my tens of thousands of fake “subscribers” who showed up after I was active in the 2011 protests in Moscow and, as far as I have seen, questionable content from highly partisan sources is also still there.

All that has happened is that, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by equity research company Pivotal Research Group, time spent by users on Facebook was down 4 percent year-on-year in November last year, and its share of “user attention” was down to 16.7 percent, from 18.2 percent a year earlier.

Twitter, faced with a 14 percent decline in time spent and a decrease in “attention share” to 0.8 percent from 1.1 percent a year earlier — and consequently described by Pivotal Research Group as a “niche platform” — needs to do something to draw people to it, not repel them. So software developer Dorsey’s need for a bottom-up re-evaluation of how his software has been working is understandable.

The starting point has been provided by a non-profit called Cortico, which grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. It is working on a set of “health indicators” for the US public sphere based on four principles: shared attention (to what extent are people interested in the same subjects?), shared reality (are people using the same set of facts?), variety (are people exposed to different opinions?) and receptivity (are they willing to listen to those different opinions?).

If there is a transparently developed, openly discussed set of measurements to determine the “health of the conversation” on Twitter or any other social network, the networks could — instead of grappling with macro problems like “fake news” or “harassment” — break down their responses into micro actions designed to move the metrics. Then they could report to the public — and to regulators — that the conversation is growing healthier.

This story has been viewed 2001 times.

Comments will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned.

TOP top